Cupcake Christmas Story

A Cupcake Christmas Story (Part V)

Chapter 15

         Clara replayed Matt’s words as she turned on ‘Home Alone.’ 

         “He wants me to manage the coffee shop. It would be a dream job – being able to run the business and still have time for baking…” Clara felt sugarplum fairies dancing – she wanted the job at Soulful Java.

         Looking at the stack of bills on the table she sighed. “Bills don’t lie, I need the job at FinTech…it will be a great opportunity – right Pumpkin Spice.”

         “Mrrreow,” Pumpkin Spice’s answer was inconclusive.

         Clara, wearing her Christmas Cat pjs, she relaxed on the couch enjoying the colorful Christmas lights as she started Home Alone.  She would enjoy this night off, even if all she could think about was Matt and the coffee shop.

~

         “Uncle Clark,” Matt answered his phone.

Clark is the senior partner at the firm.  While Clark supported his nephew’s coffee shop, he was frustrated that Matt wasn’t prioritizing his design career.  He hoped to put him on the right path, especially with the Community College project looming the new year.

         “How’s my favorite nephew?”

         “I’m your only nephew,” Matt laughed.

         “Can you swing by the office tomorrow at 11? The Community College planning committee is stopping by to discuss the project. They cannot wait to meet you.”

         “Yeah,” Matt gulped. “I need coverage for the shop, but of course I’ll be there.”

         “Matt, I’m proud of your work at Soulful Java, but you need to realign your priorities.  You are an architect, not a barista. I understand the investment in Soulful Java, but you cannot run it fulltime.  We need your expertise at the firm.”

         “I understand.” Matt admitted he had invested most of his energy into starting the coffee shop.  He never intended to give up being an architect for Soulful Java, but he found running the shop was rewarding. “I need to find a coffee-work balance.”

         “I need you all-in on this project.”

         “If I commit to the project, I will give my all.”

         “If? If is not an option, Matthew Orsay.  This is one of the largest contracts we have had in the firm’s history, and they want you – your designs.  I recommend you hire help at the shop – or even considering selling it.”

         “I can’t sell Soulful Java.”

         “And I can’t afford to lose your talent at the firm.” His voice firm and determined. “The Willis Group will buy Soulful Java.  They are looking to expand their holdings downtown.”

         “And they will ruin it! The Willis Group doesn’t care about community and quality coffee.”

         “Think it over.”

         Uncle Clark hung up unceremoniously.  Matt understood his uncle’s point of view.  Matt loves architecture and design, but frankly he had gotten burned out the past year.  The investment in Soulful Java got his creative juices flowing again. 

         “The community college project is a dream, and I do have a lot of ideas,” he thought to himself. “I’ve just got to figure out how to keep Soulful Java running. If only Clara…” He stopped himself. Clara would not work for him full-time. He could not pay her as much as FinTech.

         Matt spent the rest of the evening drafting ideas to present to the college board.  He could not screw this up.  The entire firm was counting on him.

Chapter 16

         Clara continued to be shocked by the number of cupcake orders that continued to come in from her social media. Her inbox was inundated with orders.

         “I will enjoy the fifteen minutes of cupcake fame before I start my new job next week,” Clara smiled as she put on her apron.

It was going to be a hectic and sweet Monday.  Clara was catering two tea parties, including an American Girl party for Lucy and her friends. Emily was kind enough to help with bakery deliveries.

         Across town, Matt suited up for his meeting with the community college board. He had a few leads on coffee shop managers.

         “I’ll get Clara’s feedback tomorrow, see if she can review the applications.”

~

         “Let me get this straight, Matt said he wants you to manage the coffee shop?” Emily loading her car with cupcake deliveries.

         “Not exactly. He said he was going to offer it to me before I got the job at FinTech.”

         “Did you tell him you are interested in the job?”

         “No, that would be foolish.”

         “You are interested in running the shop though?”

         “Interested does not equal yes – you know I have to be practical.  I’m single and have bills to pay – and a cat to support.”

         “It doesn’t hurt to keep your options open.  Matt recognizes your talent, and you could become business partners.” Emily suggested.

         “Thanks for being my delivery elf.” Clara ignored the last statement from her sister’s mouth. “I’ll see you at the tea party.”

         “Lucy cannot wait!”

~

         Every year, the Bedford Springs Historical Society hosts a Christmas Tea for elementary students and their dolls.  This year’s theme was a Dickens Christmas.  The kids would enjoy yummy treats (made by Clara) and a kid-friendly version of A Christmas Carol.

         Lucy and Samantha were dressed in matching red velvet Christmas dresses with black patten leather shoes and lace stockings.  Becca unfortunately had Christmas horse camp and could not attend.

         “You and Samantha look dashing.”  Clara clipped on a plaid Christmas bow in Lucy’s reddish hair.

         “Samantha loves the tea cakes you made.”

         “I’m glad she approves.”

         “We made you a special gift.” Lucy handed her aunt a box wrapped in silver paper with a gold bow.

         “Thank you, I cannot wait to open it on Christmas.”

         “Don’t make us wait that long,” Lucy pressed Clara to open the gift.

         Tearing into the packaging, Clara unwrapped a hand painted Nutcracker ornament.

         “You made this?”

         “Samantha helped.’

         “It’s gorgeous.”

         “I know you like the Nutcracker and your name is Clara – so…”

         “I love it.”

         Clara treasured the moment.  Christmas was coming soon, and yet she wished these moments would last forever.

Chapter 17

         “How did your meeting with the community college board go,” Clara greeted Matt on Tuesday morning.

         “Really well. The board loves my preliminary ideas.” Matt filled Clara in on the sticky situation with his uncle.

         “He wants you to sell the shop?”

         “I hate the idea, but unless I find a qualified manager and additional staff…I might have too.  I don’t want to give up being an architect.  The problem is I don’t want to give up Soulful Java either.”

         “Let me make a few calls.  A few of my Data Dot colleagues would be good candidates.  One of them, Lacy, worked at Starbucks corporate offices.”

         “I’d appreciate the referrals.”

         “In all honestly, I wish I could step in an manage the shop.  I love Soulful Java and the opportunity to serve as baker.”

         “The job is yours if you want it.”

         “I appreciate that Matt, I just don’t think I can turn down the FinTech offer…”

         “I get it. You and I are battling dreams vs practical reality.” Matt paused. “I’m excited for The Nutcracker this weekend.”

         “Me too. I appreciate the invitation.” Clara smiled softly. “I have a few orders to prepare in the kitchen.”

         “I’m going to line up a few interviews for staff.  I’ll reach out to Lacy.  I appreciate the lead.”

~

         Matt did get a hold of Lacy, who was more than qualified for the management position, but unfortunately, she had just taken a full-time position at another software company.

         “I’d love to work weekends,” Lacy offered.

         “That would be a big help,” Matt thanked Lacy.  “Let me know if you have any referrals for the full-time position.”

~

         “Clara, I hoped I’d find you here,” Maddy Webster stopped by the coffee shop on her lunch break.

         “Ms. Webster, nice to see you,” Clara cheeks flushed, trying to hold her composure.  Clara was covered in flour and her hair was a mess.

         “Please call me Maddy,” The executive wore a burgundy pant suit with fashionable boots. “I was craving coffee and one of your signature cupcakes.”

         “I recommend the Lucy Sweetbread Cakes and a vanilla mocha.”

         “Sounds delicious,” Maddy reached out to pay.

         “On the house,” Clara offered.

         “We cannot wait to have you start next week. I’m getting your office set-up now and will introduce you to your assistant via Zoom later this week.”

         “I’m so honored for the opportunity to work at FinTech…” Clara held her breath. “I do have one issue I’d like to discuss.”

         “Go on.”

         “I am excited for the job, but I do have commitments with Soulful Java and my cupcake business, at least through January.  I know this job is going to demand most of my free time but did hope I could possibly have some leeway as I transition out of the baking business.”

         There Clara had gotten it out of her system.  Would FinTech be flexible with her schedule outside of work – or was she getting married to the job like she did at Data Dot.

         “Director is going to be a full time – really around the clock role. Not to disrespect your free time Clara, but you will be communicating with offices in Asia and the Americas and often working late. The benefit is you will be on a fast track to grow with the company and your salary justifies the extra time.”

         “Of course, I understand.”

         “Don’t get me wrong, you have the best cupcakes I’ve ever eaten, but with FinTech you won’t have time to have your cake and eat it too. I’m sorry.”

         Clara and Maddy exchanged niceties and casual conversation before the executive returned to work.

         “I’m a fool,” Clara buried her head in her apron. “I should be over the moon at this job opportunity and all I can think about is wanting to keep working at Soulful Java and baking cupcakes. My priorities are all off.”

         It was not so much that the job at FinTech didn’t excite her – it was the fact that she knew the sacrifices she’d give up for the position.  She would work long hours and stress out over quotas and operations.

         “It’s just because Data Dot burned me out.” She reasoned, but deep-down Clara realized as tempting as the salary and prestige was – she did not really want to battle the corporate ladder.  Unfortunately, she might not have a choice. 

Chapter 18

         The week sped faster than Santa’s sleigh on supercharge.  Between baking holiday orders and prepping for her new job, Clara barely had time to sip her hot cocoa. 

         “Any luck on finding a manager?” Clara checked in with Matt on Thursday.

         “No, but a lot of people are already MIA for the holidays.”

         “You still have a few more weeks,” Clara encouraged. “I spoke with my new job and unfortunately I’m not going to have much time for baking.  I was thinking I could provide cupcakes once a week – maybe Saturdays and you can freeze them, so you have enough fresh pastries for the week?”

         “That is a great idea, although long term I don’t know how feasible it will be.” Matt understood the time constraints Clara would have with her new job.  He would look at working with other vendors in January – if he still ran the business. 

         Martin Willis continued to leave voicemails asking Matt to sell the shop. It was a tempting offer, but Matt had poured his heart into the shop and did not want to give it up.  He would figure out a way to balance his architecture career with his business.

         “I know you’re swamped with cupcake orders, but if you’re free tonight, I have an extra ticket to the Gingerbread Village at the Watermark Hotel.” Matt took a chance on asking Clara.

         “I love the Gingerbread Village,” Clara’s eyes lit up.  In all honesty she had been so busy she forgot about the seasonal tradition at Bedford Springs hotel.  

         “Leave around six?  We can grab dinner there.”

~

         Located in the center of downtown Bedford Springs, The Watermark was built in the 1920s in the Art Deco style to cater to the burgeoning financial district.  When The Great Depression hit, The Watermark served as affordable housing before being restored to its former glory.  It reopened as a hotel in the 1950s and has been celebrating its Christmas Village since the 1960s. 

         “This year’s exhibit features over 100 gingerbread houses divided into a variety of categories.” Clara read the brochure to Matt as they meandered through the magical gingerbread village.

         “Look at this replica of St. Mark’s Parish,” Clara motioned as they enjoyed the beautiful gingerbread renditions of local landmarks. “Look – your firm has an entry.”

         “My Uncle Clark is the Gingerbread pro -he has won awards.”

         “Maybe next year you can create a Soulful Java gingerbread house?”

         “I’ll need a baker to help me.”

         The pair wandered the displays for over an hour, blown away by the creativity and details of each gingerbread creations. 

         “I’m in awe of the children’s category -the kid’s submissions are amazing.” Clara and Matt discussed. “Especially the Teddy Bear Gingerbread Castle.”

         “There is a great taco truck outside -you hungry?” Matt suggested.

         “Chips and Salsa are my weakness,” Clara laughed. “Plus, calories don’t count during the holidays.”

         After ordering steak tacos with spicy queso and pico, Clara and Matt found table near the square Christmas tree.

         The colored lights glittered, twinkling like stars.  Hand cut ribbon adorned the ten-foot Fraser Fir with and Star of Bethlehem on top.

         “Bedford Springs is so pretty at Christmas time. It feels magical.” Clara noted. “You have any fun plans for Christmas?”

         “I spend Christmas Eve with my sister’s family.  She goes all out and Becca is determined to see Santa this year.” Matt laughed. “We then have a big Christmas Day dinner with my parents and Uncle Clark’s family.  My mom makes the best sweet potato casserole.”

         “Sounds delicious.  Think she’ll give me the recipe.”

         “Only if you bake her a cupcake,” Matt teased. “What about you – any fun plans for Christmas?”

         “I go to Christmas Eve Mass with my family and spend the day with my sister Emily’s family on Christmas.  I’m in charge of making the pot roast this year.”

         “Save me leftovers?”

         “I’m a much better baker than pot roast prepper, but sure.”

         After finishing their tacos, the pair walked side by side down Main Street taking in the lights and atmosphere of Christmas in the city. 

         “There is the FinTech building…” Matt pointed to the skyscraper. “I’m proud of you, Clara.”

         “Thanks.” Clara’s perplexed expression didn’t go past Matt.

         “You look confused.”

         “I am confused. I know that I should take the job at FinTech.  It is exciting and interesting and pays well…”

         “But…”

         “I really love baking – and the coffee shop.  I hate to leave.”

         “Listen, I support your decision either way, and wouldn’t fault you for taking the job, but I love working with you and I know we can build Soulful Java into the best coffee and bakery in the state.”  Matt stepped out on a limb. “I need a partner for Soulful Java…”

         “I’d love to help you run the shop, but…”

         “Just think about it.  I’m prepared to make you a full partner in the business.  I can’t pay as much as FinTech, but you’ll have stable hours…”

         “I…” Clara’s heart rushed to say ‘yes,’ but her head stopped her.

         “Just think about it.”

         “I’ll let you know by Christmas,” Clara promised, squeezing Matt’s hand.

Chapter 19

         Clara poured her heart into baking the next few days, hoping it would settle her emotions, but she felt like sprinkles stuck in frosting.

         She took time to dig into the Fintech division guide – prepping for her new role.  She had lots of great ideas about how to run the sales division.  A consummate professional, Clara organized her thoughts and ideas into a perfectly prepped presentation.

         As Clara organized her ideas for FinTech, she received a call from her friend Ginny in Seattle.

         “Hey girl! I wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas!” Ginny’s friendly voice sounded through the receiver. “How are things going post Data Dot?”

         Clara brought Ginny up to speed on her cupcake business and new opportunity at FinTech.  Ginny, always a source of wisdom, was the perfect sounding board to analyze the pros and cons of FinTech and baking.

         “I think you should consider approaching FinTech about a consulting role.” Ginny suggested. “You love sales and provide excellent value – but with consulting you don’t have the fulltime responsibilities of director.”

         “I don’t know if Maddy is interested in that…” Clara’s mind racing. “I like the idea though.”

         “Just give it a thought,” Ginny encouraged.  “Several of our friends in Seattle have made a career move to consulting and you have the backbone and skill to make it work.”

         “Thanks Ginny, you gave me something to think about.”

         Clara’s creative business brain went to work.  Could she really make a go as a consultant?  It would allow her the opportunity to focus on baking without giving up her sales career.  It seemed risky though. 

         “I can at least research the idea and see if Ms. Webster would be open to me coming in more consultant role.” Clara was renewed by the idea.  Cupcakes and Business consulting…could it work?

         It didn’t hurt to research her options. 

~

         Matt felt relieved after finalizing Lacy’s part-time hours and adding on two part-time baristas, Josie, and Alejandro.  Both baristas attend the community college and had prior experience.

         “Having extra help will keep things running smoothly.” Matt thought to himself as she began to dream up plans for community college design project.  The project excited his creative sensibilities, and he was excited to be part of building a wing that would provide top educational opportunities for local students.

         Matt had completed most of his Christmas shopping but still had one important gift left.  He wanted to buy something special for Clara.  They had become fast friends in the past month, and he couldn’t imagine her not being part of his life moving forward.

         “Funny how Clara says I gave her the opportunity to bake, but she really helped the shop grow.  Our business has gone way up since we started selling her cupcakes.” Matt smiled, remembering the first day they met at the school festival.  “I think I know the perfect gift…”

~

         Clara was also brainstorming gift ideas for Matt.  He changed her life when he offered her the chance to bake for Soulful Java. Sure, she has the business savvy – but Matt believed in her and helped her see the impossible dreams might be possible.

         Emily suggested a Frank Lloyd Wright inspired coffee mug. Clara liked the idea, but wanted something more personal for Matt. “I have an idea…

Chapter 20:

         The latter part of the week was nonstop for Clara.  Every minute she was not baking, Clara was brainstorming the idea of becoming a consultant.  She spoke with several experts in the field and sped-read a few ‘How-to’ books.  It seemed like a feasible idea, but she was not sure it would work with FinTech.  They needed a sales director and with only a few days from her start day – it would not be easy or smart to back out of the job.

         “Clara, it’s wonderful to see you,” Maddy Webster expressed genuine warmth as Clara entered her office on the Friday before Christmas. “I’d love to give you a tour of your office…”

         “Actually, I’ve been doing some soul-searching and I have a proposal I wanted to run by you.” Clara appeared poised and confident, even if her nerves were shot. “While I’m honored to be part of the FinTech team, I realize that I don’t want to be married to my job.  I am a hard and diligent worker who goes above and beyond, but there is more to life than closing deals.”

         “You are single, it’s not like you’re pressed for time,” Maddy’s words stung, but truth be told it was a common assessment.  Single professionals in sales were expected to have little to no life outside of their sales role.  Sure it depends on the company, but Clara understood Maddy’s logic.

         “I know it sounds silly, but I love to bake and the past few weeks of owning and operating my own business – cooperating with Soulful Java – it reminded me what I love about sales and service.  I want the job at FinTech, but I don’t want to give up baking and my life outside of work.  I want a work life balance.” Clara could sense Maddy’s disappointment.

         “I am sorry you feel that way,” Maddy paused. “I saw your drive at Data Dot, and we need a player who is all in here.”

         “All-in, yes, but I don’t think I can work 24/7.” Clara tried to explain, realizing she might be making the worst mistake of her life.  “I know I can help FinTech accomplish their goals from a sales and growth perspective.  I have the vision and understanding of the industry to make it happen.  I want to work at FinTech, but what I propose is you hire me as a consultant.”

         “A consultant? That is unconventional,” Maddy raised her eyebrows – annoyed and curious.

         “I’ve prepared a proposal,” Clara handed her presentation to the executive.  “This outlines the sales plan moving forward to ensure that FinTech is the cybersecurity leader in technology. The sales initiatives are outlined in this brief, and I trust we can work together to grow this business into the future.”

         “This is amazing, and I agree with all of your plans, but I need a full-time director…”

         “I understand and that is why I cannot be the director of sales.  What I propose is you hire me as a consultant to help lead the team from an outside perspective.”

         “Clara, I’m confused.  We offered you a huge salary uplift and a job most in your position could only dream about.”

         “Honestly, I cannot explain my decision with reason.  The truth is I rediscovered my love for baking and turning my passion into my own business is important to me.  I can provide my expertise and ensure FinTech succeeds as a consultant– it will be worth your investment.”

         “So, you are turning down the director position.”

         The pause was so tense and heavy that Clara felt that the world had ended.  Clara kept quiet – she wasn’t going to speak first – that is a golden rule of sales negotiation.

         “Well…Ms. Keene…I hate for us to lose your talent, but I recognize your entrepreneurship and commend you.  I want to hire you for a two-year contract as official sales consultant for FinTech.  We will require a minimum number of hours, but we can align that with your entrepreneurial goals!”

         “You won’t regret this,” Clara gushed in gratitude. “I am excited to partner with FinTech.”

         “I’ll see you on December 26th – I know the team will appreciate your proposal.”

         “I’ll be here.”

         “And Clara? Bring some cupcakes to the meeting,” Maddy’s warmth lifted the tension. 

         “Thank you, God,” she whispered as she floated out of the office, stuck on cloud nine. “I’ve got to tell Matt!”

         She dialed his number, which went straight to voicemail. Snow flurries had started to fall lightly, the temperature a frosty 31 degrees, as she ran four blocks to the coffee shop.

         “Slow down reindeer before you get frostbite,” the Salvation Army Santa gave a jolly laugh as Clara nearly ran into him.

         “Merry Christmas,” she threw a twenty-dollar bill in the red can.

         The line at Soulful Java was out the door as Clara rushed inside, her face Rudolph red.

         “Clara, I didn’t expect you this morning.”

         “Thought, I could lend a hand.” Their eyes met in the frenzy of the morning rush. 

         “I’m happy to have the help.”

         “Speaking of help – is your offer still on the table?”

         “You mean become business partners? Of course.”

         “I accept your proposal.”

         “What, really?” Matt was overjoyed and flabbergasted at the same time. “What about FinTech.”

         “I’ll fill you in on the details later.  Right now, we need all hands-on deck to caffeinate this crowd.”

Chapter 21:

         Over the next two days, Clara and Matt worked together of drafting out their business partnership.  They would sign the contracts after Christmas.

         “It seems fitting that we should send off the holiday at The Nutcracker,” Matt squeezed Clara’s hand as they ended the symphony hall at BPAC. 

         “Why do you say that?”

         “Clara you are my sugar plum fairy.  You waltzed into my life at a school bake sale with your Nutcracker Sweet cupcakes and turned my life upside down.”

         “Well, you could be a Christmas prince,” Clara pressed her lips together, revealing her dimples.

         After the show they meandered downtown looking at the lights, discussing their business plans.

         “We’re at the Thorne House,” Clara noticed.

         “Imagine that” Matt laughed knowingly. “I have a surprise for you.”

         He led her to the front porch and the porch swing. He handed her a small package.

         “What’s this?” Clara taken aback by the perfectly wrapped jewelry box.

         “Just a thank you gift.”

         Clara opened the box, revealing a bracelet with coffee and cupcake charms.

         “I love it.”

         “I bought it so you would remember your time at the coffee shop, but now I see it is as a toast to our new adventure.”

         “I left your gift at the coffee shop.  It’s on your desk.” Clara a bit embarrassed she didn’t have the gift with her.  She’d settled on a vintage print of the Soulful Java building she’d found at an antique store.

         “I look forward to opening it with you tomorrow – if you can spare a few minutes on Christmas Eve?”

         “We do have coffee and cupcakes to serve to hungry elves tomorrow morning.”

         Matt stood up, leading Clara underneath a twig of mistletoe.

         “I don’t know if you are much for tradition, but mind if I steal a Christmas kiss.”

         “I guess we have to,” Clara fell into Matt’s arms.

         “I don’t want to complicate the business side of things, but I think I might be falling for you Ms. Keene.”

         “I think the feeling is mutual.”

The End

Copyright Firehole Press 2021

Cupcake Christmas Story

A Cupcake Christmas Story (Part IV)

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Chapter 11:

         The Metro Corner Diner has been a cornerstone of downtown Bedford Springs since the 1960s, serving world-class omelets all day alongside of homestyle southern grub.

         “I can’t decide what to order,” Clara debated the menu. “Everything here is so good! What are you ordering, Matt?”

         “Hard call, but I am sticking with the All-Night Veggie Omelet and a side of their cinnamon toast.”

         “Mmm,” Clara mulled the idea of an omelet. “I think I’ll try the pot roast with a side of caramelized sweet potato home fries.”

         Sipping on the Metro’s signature ‘Cool Yule’ wassail, Matt and Clara enjoyed conversation.

         “Tell me more about Clara,” Matt inquired. “I know the smart super baker, but outside of taking the cupcake world by storm – give me your background.”

         “Nothing too serious,” Clara blushed, never one to enjoy talking about herself. “I grew up in Bedford Springs with my sister Emily.  After graduating from high school, I attended the University of Washington.”

         “Wow, I love Seattle, but what led you clear across the country?”

         “My parents took us on a trip to Olympic National Park and Seattle during high school and I fell in love with the scenery. I was ready for an adventure and figured it would be fun to live on the west coast a few years. I originally planned to major in film but wound up as a business and marketing major. I got a tech job at a start-up and then eventually moved back to Bedford Springs and made a career at Data Dot” As Clara recounted, emotions bubbled up to the surface.  Would her teenaged self – ready to the conquer the world approve of her current trajectory.

         “Film?”

         “I originally wanted to produce movies – write screenplays.  I love classic movies and want to be the next Frank Capra. I was on the Bedford Springs High TV station,” Clara laughed. “In all honestly I’m glad my career shifted.  I prefer baking and business to silver screen.

         “Frank Capra is my favorite director, well other thank Hitchcock.  What is your favorite Capra film?”

         “It Happened One Night,” Clara enthused.

         “I’m guessing It’s a Wonderful Life is your favorite holiday flick?”

         “No, while I love that movie, my favorite Christmas movie is Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire.”

         “A must watch every-year.” Matt agreed. “When did you start baking?”

         “Baking has always been an outlet for me.  I used to bake sugar cookies with my grandma – she had a special recipe with a pinch of buttermilk.  I started dreaming of owning my own bakery in college.  I took some culinary courses at the community college, but I put baking professionally on hold when my tech career took off. I honestly let that dream go until now.”

         “Well God has a way of resurrecting dreams,” Matt flashed his half-grin.

         “What about you Matt Orsay – tell me about Bedford Springs top engineer and coffee grinder?”

         “Too high of praises really.  As I mentioned, my family has lived in Bedford Springs for two centuries, but I grew up in Atlanta.  I moved to Bedford Springs after graduating from Georgia Tech to work at my Uncle Massey’s architecture and engineering firm.  I’m on the urban development and revitalization team.  I was the lead architect on the BPAC complex.”

         “You are behind the BPAC – I am blown away as it is the premier venue for performing arts in the Piedmont.  The facility is state of the art but maintains a character in keeping with neighboring art deco buildings in the district.”

         “Thanks, I’m proud of that project,” Matt gleamed. “I actually have tickets to The Nutcracker next week.  You are welcome to join me – if you’d like to?”

         “How could I refuse, I’m Clara after all,” she teased with her silly sense of humor.

         “It’s a date,” Matt firm in his assessment.

         “A date?” Clara bit her lip.  She liked the sound of it, but played it cool. “You mentioned that you started the coffee shop to help revitalize the district – it is obvious you have a passion for java.  Tell me more…”

         “I admit I’m a coffee snob and realized that the coffee options downtown was lacking.  I got the idea of having a gathering space for community tied to coffee and conversation.  I love architecture, but I was ready for a new challenge and the coffee shop is fun,” Matt paused, taking stock. “Funny thing is I thought I would just set up the shop and be more of a silent partner, but honestly the coffee shop is my focus.  I love running it.  In all honesty though, it has been hard balancing my role at the firm and running the shop.”

         “You could hire a manager to help cover the weight of responsibilities.” Clara suggested “You’ll get burnt out otherwise.”

         “I’m working on some ideas.  I have considered taking a break from the firm.  It’s a big decision.”

         “I’m here if you need a sounding board.  What you have done with Soulful Java is a gem, but your talent with architecture deserves time too -just find a balance.”

         The pair enjoyed each other’s company until just after midnight.

         “See you at the shop tomorrow,” Matt hung on the words, embracing every second in Clara’s sweet calming presence.

         “Have the Reindeer Brew ready, I’ll need the caffeine.”

         “Sounds good frosty.”

Chapter 12:

         Saturday at Soulful Java was a fog – Clara baked over 100 cupcakes and 78 cookies for her clients and the shop.  The coffee lined stretched out the door most of the morning as Rudolph Run 5K participants rushed in to fuel up after the race.

         As she frosted her Nutcracker Sweets, Clara’s cell phone rang.  She dusted off the flour from her apron and reached for the phone.   

         “Hi, it’s   Maddy Webster at FinTech,” The executive of major local financial services firm boomed on the other end of the line.

         “Ms. Webster, good afternoon,” Clara scrambled for words. Why was the head of the conglomerate calling her? 

         “Did I catch you for a quick second?”

         “Yes,” Clara gulped. “How can I help you.”

         “Your reputation in tech sales precedes you and when I heard you were let go from Data Dot I had to reach out.  FinTech is expanding our digital division to launch a series of financial services apps and I need a Director of Sales – I thought you might be interested in the role.”

         “I’m speechless, I’m honored that you would think of me.  I’d love the opportunity to be part of FinTech.”

         “I know it’s the weekend but are you free to stop by the office this afternoon to connect?”

         “Unfortunately, I’m predisposed right now,” Clara looking at the rows of cupcakes to decorate.

         “I understand you are busy with the holidays.” Maddy did not hide her disappointment. “I am eager to get the position filled…I don’t want to impose, but I could meet you somewhere if that easier.”

         “I am beyond excited for the opportunity to work for FinTech, but to be honest, I’ve started a holiday baking business and I have dozens of cupcakes to deliver this afternoon. I can be free this evening or Monday?”

         “You are Clara of Clara’s Cupcake Creations. I am impressed. I tried one of your cupcakes at the Chamber’s Christmas Party.”

         “I started the business for the holidays,” Clara surprised that Maddy heard of her business. “I’m the official cupcake vendor for Soulful Java downtown.”

         “A mocha sounds heavenly right now,” Maddy paused. “Why don’t I meet you at Soulful Java. I can enjoy a cupcake and a hot coffee while we catch up.”

         Clara did not have time to object. The idea of meeting an executive looking like she had stepped out of the pantry didn’t appeal to her, but this job opportunity was perfect…or was it.

Clara knew she needed a so-called real job, but she had to admit that her heart was at Soulful Java.

         “It smells like a Gingerbread dream in here,” Becca walked into the kitchen with her uncle.

         “Hey, I have a fresh batch of cupcakes here.” Clara handed Matt a tray of sweets.

         “I’m going to take Becca ice skating tonight -do you and Lucy want to come?” Matt offered.

         “I would love to, but actually I have an interview.” Clara brought Matt up to speed.

         “That is amazing Clara – director of sales?”

         “I don’t have it yet,” she bit her lip.

         “They’d be a fool not to hire you,” Matt encouraged. “I’ve already taken your advice about selling our coffee online with subscription services.”

         Matt was happy for Clara, but deep down his stomach was knotting up – selfish as it was, he needed her at the shop…and in his life.

~

         “Ms. Webster, welcome to Soulful Java,” Clara hid her nerves as she greeted the executive at the door. “Would you like a Peppermint Mocha or our Reindeer Chocolate Mocha.”

         “Call me Maddy and peppermint sounds good.” The executive, perfectly dressed in a business suit with heels. “Which cupcake do you recommend.”

         “The Winter Spice cupcake pairs well with the mocha.”

Lexie served the hot drinks, while Clara presented the cupcake.

“Scrumptious,” Maddy was obviously impressed.

“Thank you for taking time to meet with me.”

“The honor is all mine. Your work at Data Dot is legendary.  I’ll cut to the chase Clara; I want you on the team.  Digital services are critical for FinTech moving forward and you have brains and charisma to run the sales division for digital.”

“I’m grateful that you want me to be on your team.  I know that we can build a culture of excellence drive the business forward.” Clara knew the right words to say, but as she sipped on her coffee, she felt the anxiety weighing on her. Data Dot had left her gutted emotionally.

“We need you to start ASAP.  You will lead a team of fifty sales professionals and answer to me directly.”

“ASAP…as in after Christmas?”

“I’d like to onboard you this week, but I understand you have your hands full with the holidays and your current business endeavor.  We could aim December 26th?”

“Less than two weeks,” Clara thought over the timeline.  She had to take the job, there was no question – it was an answered prayer – but why did it seem so daunting to say yes. “That would work…Can I have twenty-four hours to think it over.”

“What’s to think about?  You are an all-star and I want you on the team,” Maddy was persuasive. “If money is the concern, I think you’ll find this number rather convincing.”

Maddy handed Clara a proposal with a figure that made her weak in the needs. It was more than she ever could make at Data Dot…or selling cupcakes.

“I don’t see how I can refuse, but I need to review with my business partner,” Clara stalled.

“Welcome to the team, Clara.” Maddy gave her a hug before walking purposefully out of Soulful Java.

“It sounds like congratulations are in order,” Lexie refilled Clara’s mug.

“Yeah,” Clara visibly conflicted.

“You did just get offered your dream job, right?”

“Yes and no,” Clara sighed. “I am excited, and this is an excellent opportunity, but its bittersweet. I have enjoyed working as a baker.”

“You are an amazing baker and honestly I think you can continue to build Clara’s Creations into a successful long-term business, but I understand that you have to think about job security.  FinTech is a big company,” Lexie encouraged. “Have you talked to Matt?”

“I mentioned the interview.  He is supportive.”

“Well, he’ll walk to the moon for you.  He is head over heels for you.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Clara protested. “We’re just friends.”

“And Rudolph doesn’t have a red nose.” Lexie rolled her eyes. “Matt likes you – yes he respects you as a businesswoman but is also attracted to you.”

“I don’t know,” Clara cheeks were redder than Rudolph’s nose.

“You like him too, but I get it – it’s awkward to say that to the ‘boss.’”

“We’ve never talked about our dating lives.  Does he have a…”

“No, he is single.  He did date a teacher for a few months, but they broke up and she moved to California.”

“He did ask me to The Nutcracker…”

“Whatever you decide Matt will support you – but he will be disappointed to see you go from the shop.  He really needs to hire you on as a manager.”

“Lexie, you are too nice.”

“Seriously, Matt is way too busy working at the firm to manage this place fulltime.  He needs a partner.”

Before they could continue the conversation, a crowd appeared.

Clara said a silent prayer for direction. “God guide my steps.”

~

         “Clara is nice,” Becca noted as she laced her ice skates.  Downtown Bedford Springs has an ice rink set up every December by the town Christmas tree.  “I think you should marry her.”

         “Becca,” Matt nearly choked with surprise.  Kids can be blunt. “Clara is a friend.”

         “I know you just work together, but I can tell you like her and she likes you.  So, you should get married.”

         “It is a little more complicated than that,” Matt laughed.

         “Will you be sad if she takes the other job?”

         “No Clara deserves to get the job -she is more than qualified.”

         “If Clara takes that big tech job, will she be able to work at Soulful Java?” Becca genuinely concerned.

         “Enough about Clara,” Matt’s brows furrowed, clearly embarrassed. “Let’s go skating.”

         “She can’t quit – she makes magical cupcakes.  Tell her not to quit, Uncle Matt.”

         “For the record, I hope Clara stays, but that’s her decision.” Matt could see Clara had made quite an impression on his niece.  “Race you to the candy cane bridge,” Matt hit the ice.

Chapter 13

         “The CEO of FinTech reached out to you?” Emily on the edge of her seat as her sister filled her in on the job opportunity Saturday night.

         “Apparently she heard about my work on ransomware prevention in finance at Data Dot and thought I’d be the perfect fit.”

         “This is a Christmas miracle – major raise, heading a sales team…”

         “It’s a terrific opportunity,” Clara’s lukewarm reaction didn’t get past Emily.

         “Then why the long face?”

         “Starting a new job is just stressful that’s all…”

         “And?”

         “It feels good to be baking again and owning my own business. I was married to Data Dot.  For years all I focused on was work and it feels good to create something sweet and fun.”

         “You are quickly becoming Bedford Springs Queen of Cupcakes.” Emily could understand the frustration.  She often worried about Clara – she had witnessed her sister pour her entire life in Data Dot. Clara had avoided dating, hobbies, everything but work. “You don’t have to take the job.”

         “I do, the salary is amazing, and I can make a significant impact at FinTech.” Clara reasoned. “I can still bake – on the side?”

         “I understand that money is important, and you need stable employment – but don’t sell yourself short sis. You are talented and you deserve to be happy.  Baking cupcakes or working as corporate expert.”

         “Hi Aunt Clara, how is the cupcake business?” Lucy entered the conversation.

         “It’s sweet. I wanted to see if I could name a new cupcake recipe after you. ‘Lucy’s Sweet Bread’ inspired from Saint Lucia Day in Sweden.”

         “We learned about her in school,” Lucy smiled. “Her name means light and feast day is celebrated on December 13th to light the way to Christ.  She helped bring food and aid to persecuted Christians during the fourth century in Rome.  Her feast day is a big holiday in Sweden. Girls and boys dress up in white gowns and deliver yummy Christmas treats. Young girls dress up as Saint Lucy with a crown of candles.”

         “This Lucy cupcake will have a sweet bread taste, similar to Swedish treats sprinkled with stars to represent light in darkness.” Clara explained. “You are a light in my life Lucy.”

         “I can’t wait to try the cupcake.  You should make jelly star cookies too, dusted with powdered sugar.” 

         “Future Master Chef here,” Clara hugged her niece. “I need to drop off a few orders before heading home.  See you tomorrow at church?”

         “Sounds good,” Emily walked her sister to the door. “I’m proud of you Clara and I support you whatever you decide.”

Chapter 14:

         Sunday at St. Mark’s is a peaceful time for Clara to recharge. She prayerfully listened, preparing her heart of Christmas in the season of Advent.

         “God, I need some direction. I am grateful for the job offer, but is it your will for me? Guide my steps.”

         After Mass ended, the congregation migrated to the Parish Hall for coffee and conversation. Clara provided a platter of vanilla cupcakes and cookies.

         “We love your cupcakes,” Lydia Williams, church volunteer coordinator tracked Clara down. “Any chance you can help us plan the Valentine’s Day Bake Sale. It raises money for the youth group and food bank.”

         “Of course.  I’d love to help,” Clara smiled, happy to give back.

         “I heard what happened to you at Data Dot,” Lydia continued. “What a nightmare, but I’m so grateful you’ve rebounded. Your cupcake business is booming.”

         “I’m starting a new job in tech job in January, but I have enjoyed Clara’s Creations for the holiday season.”

         “I know Matt Orsay sings your praises.  He calls you his Christmas miracle.”

         “You know Matt?”

         “He is my neighbor,” Lydia acknowledged. “He brings me coffee beans every week.” 

         “I’ve enjoyed working with him.”

         “You have made quite the impression on Matt, I think,” Marjorie not one to mince words.

         Clara excused herself from the conversation when she saw her niece at the church craft table.

         “We’re making a Jesse Tree each ornament tells the story of Jesus’s coming.”

         “Fun,” Clara picked up a set of crayons. Coloring was just the medicine she needed.

~

         After church, Clara dropped by Soulful Java, hoping to speak with Matt about her new job and discuss options moving forward for Clara’s Creations.

         “Matt’s not here,” Lexie sensed Clara’s disappointment. “He volunteers at his church food pantry on Sundays, but said he’d swing by after four.”

         “How are sales today?” Clara shifted the subject.

         “Busy! We have sold out of most cookies and cupcakes. Lots of clients buying beans for holiday gifts.”

         “You know we should make a holiday gift display – by checkout. Mugs, tees, coffee beans, gift cards…”

         “Good idea,” Lexie helped tweak the display. “I’ll tell clients to check out the gift table when check out.”

         Clara spent the next two hours completing her next round of holiday baking for Soulful Java and a handful of special orders.

         “Christmas is only twelve days away,” Clara thought as she blended the sugarplum mix. “I need to get caught on Christmas shopping.  I still need to get Emily a gift…”

         “Hey frosty, can I sample your latest creation?”

         “Hi Matt, I’m glad you’re here. I hoped we could catch up.”

         “Love to. Can I grab you a coffee?”

         “I have been craving a jingle bell coffee.”  The holiday blend is a vanilla latte with extra espresso, whipped cream with candy bell on top.

         The pair found a table by the Christmas tree.

         “Santa confirmed he can come to Soulful Java next Saturday. He is looking forward to your cookies and cupcakes.”

         “I will have plenty of Santa cookies ready for the man with a bag.” Clara savored a sip of the coffee. “Lexie said we’ve collected a lot of presents for the toy drive.”

         “That’s fantastic!” Matt realized he still needed to get Becca a gift. “Speaking of gifts, I could use your help.  I need to get Becca a gift and I am clueless.  Any ideas?”

         “I need to swing by Animal Cracker Toys to buy a dress for Lucy’s doll. I could pick up a gift for Becca if you like.”

         “Mind if I tag along?”

         “Sure,” Clara gulped down the coffee.  “Becca mentioned she is into art.”

         “She likes to go horseback riding too…”

         “We’ll find the perfect gift.”

         “How did your interview go?”

         “Um…I got the job” Clara struggled to look Matt in the eyes. “Director of Sales at Fintech.”

         “Wow – congratulations,” Matt’s eyes lit up – happy for Clara, but inside his stomach twisted in knots.

         “I’m excited, but to be honest, it is a big transition…”

         “You will be amazing!” Matt encouraged. “I don’t want to sound selfish, but I will miss having you around Soulful Java every day. I do hope you’ll still spare some time to bake – Clara’s Cupcake Creations are a crowd pleaser.”

         “I’d love to work here part-time; it just depends on my schedule.” Clara knew that the position would demand most of her time – and knew she would have to put her cupcake business on the backburner.

         “I support you, but don’t want to lose you.” Matt furrowed his brow – searching for words.

         “Don’t worry, you won’t get rid of me that easily. I have a coffee addiction.”

         “I have some news too, and I’d like your feedback.”

         “Let’s walk and talk,” Clara suggested. “Animal Crackers is only a few blocks.”

         Bedford Springs is always festive at Christmas – streets adorned with colorful lights and storefronts decked with holly and cheerful displays. Street musicians played sax and violin versions of familiar carols.

         Animal Crackers is located by the Children’s Museum. It is stocked with unique toys and board games.

         “Becca would love this ‘Little Van Gogh’ art kit. It teaches her how to paint ‘Starry Night.’  I also recommend Ticket to Ride Junior.” Clara suggested.

         “What about Rudolph?” Matt pulled a large Rudolph stuffed animal from the shelf.

         “You can never go wrong with Rudolph.”

         “What do you want for Christmas, Clara?” Matt pressed as they checked out.

         “Nothing, but peace on earth and goodwill to humanity.” Clara dismissed.  She preferred to give rather than receive.

         “Well, if you think of anything let me know.”

         “Your allowing me to sell my cupcakes at Soulful Java is the best gift I could ask for,” Clara pivoted. “What did you ask Santa for, Matt?”

         “She’s standing right here – a baker who gets coffee.” He laughed.

          “I’ll make you a dozen cupcakes with extra frosting,” Clara didn’t mind Matt’s arm being around hers. “You said you wanted to discuss something…about work?”

         “I spoke with my uncle and the community college wants me to design and oversee their expansion project in January.”

         “I read about the project on the Bedford Springs Herald website. It is the largest expansion in the history of BSCC.” Clara noted. “That is a wonderful opportunity.”

         “Yes, it is, but I don’t think I can accept.”

         “Because of the coffee shop?”

         “A project this scale will prevent me from being a hands-on manager. I won’t be able to actively run the shop for at least six months.”

         Clara could understand his dilemma, she had the same conflicted feelings in her own career transition.

         “Soulful Java is your passion and I understand how hard it will be to take a backseat role in your business.”

         “I don’t think I can physically do it.  I don’t have a backup manager and to get someone trained will take some time.”

         “I think you can ramp an assistant manager fairly quickly.  I’m happy to help you interview candidates.”

         “I actually planned to offer you the job, but I understand you can’t turn FinTech down.”

         “Yeah,” Clara had a million things she wanted to say. ‘Yes, I want to manage the shop,’ but her reason sidelined her.

         “If you were in my shoes, what would you do?”

         “I cannot answer that for you, but I know you are super talented, and the community college project would be an amazing experience.  If you can work, it out to find a qualified manager for Soulful Java – then you need to take it.” Clara paused. “But don’t give up your dream – Soulful Java is amazing, and I know it will continue to grow and evolve into the best coffeehouse in the state.  You just need balance and to hire help.”

         “I appreciate the advice.” Matt squeezed her hand. “Thanks for helping me find Becca the perfect gift. I gave her a ninja set last year and it was a disaster.  At least this Christmas I’ll be cool Uncle Matt.”

         “Becca adores you.”

         “Well, she likes you too.” Matt didn’t go into details about Becca’s matchmaker plans.

         “I better get home to feed Pumpkin Spice,” Clara noticed the time. “I’m catering an event tomorrow – but see you Tuesday?”

         “Counting down the minutes, frosty.” Matt nearly leaned in for a kiss but decided to wait for mistletoe.  ‘No need to mess up a friendship.’

Click here for Part V

Cupcake Christmas Story

A Cupcake Christmas Story (Part III)

Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.com

Chapter 11:

         The Metro Corner Diner has been a cornerstone of downtown Bedford Springs since the 1960s, serving world-class omelets all day alongside of homestyle southern grub.

         “I can’t decide what to order,” Clara debated the menu. “Everything here is so good! What are you ordering, Matt?”

         “Hard call, but I am sticking with the All-Night Veggie Omelet and a side of their cinnamon toast.”

         “Mmm,” Clara mulled the idea of an omelet. “I think I’ll try the pot roast with a side of caramelized sweet potato home fries.”

         Sipping on the Metro’s signature ‘Cool Yule’ wassail, Matt and Clara enjoyed conversation.

         “Tell me more about Clara,” Matt inquired. “I know the smart super baker, but outside of taking the cupcake world by storm – give me your background.”

         “Nothing too serious,” Clara blushed, never one to enjoy talking about herself. “I grew up in Bedford Springs with my sister Emily.  After graduating from high school, I attended the University of Washington.”

         “Wow, I love Seattle, but what led you clear across the country?”

         “My parents took us on a trip to Olympic National Park and Seattle during high school and I fell in love with the scenery. I was ready for an adventure and figured it would be fun to live on the west coast a few years. I originally planned to major in film but wound up as a business and marketing major. I got a tech job at a start-up and then eventually moved back to Bedford Springs and made a career at Data Dot” As Clara recounted, emotions bubbled up to the surface.  Would her teenaged self – ready to the conquer the world approve of her current trajectory.

         “Film?”

         “I originally wanted to produce movies – write screenplays.  I love classic movies and want to be the next Frank Capra. I was on the Bedford Springs High TV station,” Clara laughed. “In all honestly I’m glad my career shifted.  I prefer baking and business to silver screen.

         “Frank Capra is my favorite director, well other thank Hitchcock.  What is your favorite Capra film?”

         “It Happened One Night,” Clara enthused.

         “I’m guessing It’s a Wonderful Life is your favorite holiday flick?”

         “No, while I love that movie, my favorite Christmas movie is Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire.”

         “A must watch every-year.” Matt agreed. “When did you start baking?”

         “Baking has always been an outlet for me.  I used to bake sugar cookies with my grandma – she had a special recipe with a pinch of buttermilk.  I started dreaming of owning my own bakery in college.  I took some culinary courses at the community college, but I put baking professionally on hold when my tech career took off. I honestly let that dream go until now.”

         “Well God has a way of resurrecting dreams,” Matt flashed his half-grin.

         “What about you Matt Orsay – tell me about Bedford Springs top engineer and coffee grinder?”

         “Too high of praises really.  As I mentioned, my family has lived in Bedford Springs for two centuries, but I grew up in Atlanta.  I moved to Bedford Springs after graduating from Georgia Tech to work at my Uncle Massey’s architecture and engineering firm.  I’m on the urban development and revitalization team.  I was the lead architect on the BPAC complex.”

         “You are behind the BPAC – I am blown away as it is the premier venue for performing arts in the Piedmont.  The facility is state of the art but maintains a character in keeping with neighboring art deco buildings in the district.”

         “Thanks, I’m proud of that project,” Matt gleamed. “I actually have tickets to The Nutcracker next week.  You are welcome to join me – if you’d like to?”

         “How could I refuse, I’m Clara after all,” she teased with her silly sense of humor.

         “It’s a date,” Matt firm in his assessment.

         “A date?” Clara bit her lip.  She liked the sound of it, but played it cool. “You mentioned that you started the coffee shop to help revitalize the district – it is obvious you have a passion for java.  Tell me more…”

         “I admit I’m a coffee snob and realized that the coffee options downtown was lacking.  I got the idea of having a gathering space for community tied to coffee and conversation.  I love architecture, but I was ready for a new challenge and the coffee shop is fun,” Matt paused, taking stock. “Funny thing is I thought I would just set up the shop and be more of a silent partner, but honestly the coffee shop is my focus.  I love running it.  In all honesty though, it has been hard balancing my role at the firm and running the shop.”

         “You could hire a manager to help cover the weight of responsibilities.” Clara suggested “You’ll get burnt out otherwise.”

         “I’m working on some ideas.  I have considered taking a break from the firm.  It’s a big decision.”

         “I’m here if you need a sounding board.  What you have done with Soulful Java is a gem, but your talent with architecture deserves time too -just find a balance.”

         The pair enjoyed each other’s company until just after midnight.

         “See you at the shop tomorrow,” Matt hung on the words, embracing every second in Clara’s sweet calming presence.

         “Have the Reindeer Brew ready, I’ll need the caffeine.”

         “Sounds good frosty.”

Chapter 12:

         Saturday at Soulful Java was a fog – Clara baked over 100 cupcakes and 78 cookies for her clients and the shop.  The coffee lined stretched out the door most of the morning as Rudolph Run 5K participants rushed in to fuel up after the race.

         As she frosted her Nutcracker Sweets, Clara’s cell phone rang.  She dusted off the flour from her apron and reached for the phone.   

         “Hi, it’s   Maddy Webster at FinTech,” The executive of major local financial services firm boomed on the other end of the line.

         “Ms. Webster, good afternoon,” Clara scrambled for words. Why was the head of the conglomerate calling her? 

         “Did I catch you for a quick second?”

         “Yes,” Clara gulped. “How can I help you.”

         “Your reputation in tech sales precedes you and when I heard you were let go from Data Dot I had to reach out.  FinTech is expanding our digital division to launch a series of financial services apps and I need a Director of Sales – I thought you might be interested in the role.”

         “I’m speechless, I’m honored that you would think of me.  I’d love the opportunity to be part of FinTech.”

         “I know it’s the weekend but are you free to stop by the office this afternoon to connect?”

         “Unfortunately, I’m predisposed right now,” Clara looking at the rows of cupcakes to decorate.

         “I understand you are busy with the holidays.” Maddy did not hide her disappointment. “I am eager to get the position filled…I don’t want to impose, but I could meet you somewhere if that easier.”

         “I am beyond excited for the opportunity to work for FinTech, but to be honest, I’ve started a holiday baking business and I have dozens of cupcakes to deliver this afternoon. I can be free this evening or Monday?”

         “You are Clara of Clara’s Cupcake Creations. I am impressed. I tried one of your cupcakes at the Chamber’s Christmas Party.”

         “I started the business for the holidays,” Clara surprised that Maddy heard of her business. “I’m the official cupcake vendor for Soulful Java downtown.”

         “A mocha sounds heavenly right now,” Maddy paused. “Why don’t I meet you at Soulful Java. I can enjoy a cupcake and a hot coffee while we catch up.”

         Clara did not have time to object. The idea of meeting an executive looking like she had stepped out of the pantry didn’t appeal to her, but this job opportunity was perfect…or was it.

Clara knew she needed a so-called real job, but she had to admit that her heart was at Soulful Java.

         “It smells like a Gingerbread dream in here,” Becca walked into the kitchen with her uncle.

         “Hey, I have a fresh batch of cupcakes here.” Clara handed Matt a tray of sweets.

         “I’m going to take Becca ice skating tonight -do you and Lucy want to come?” Matt offered.

         “I would love to, but actually I have an interview.” Clara brought Matt up to speed.

         “That is amazing Clara – director of sales?”

         “I don’t have it yet,” she bit her lip.

         “They’d be a fool not to hire you,” Matt encouraged. “I’ve already taken your advice about selling our coffee online with subscription services.”

         Matt was happy for Clara, but deep down his stomach was knotting up – selfish as it was, he needed her at the shop…and in his life.

~

         “Ms. Webster, welcome to Soulful Java,” Clara hid her nerves as she greeted the executive at the door. “Would you like a Peppermint Mocha or our Reindeer Chocolate Mocha.”

         “Call me Maddy and peppermint sounds good.” The executive, perfectly dressed in a business suit with heels. “Which cupcake do you recommend.”

         “The Winter Spice cupcake pairs well with the mocha.”

Lexie served the hot drinks, while Clara presented the cupcake.

“Scrumptious,” Maddy was obviously impressed.

“Thank you for taking time to meet with me.”

“The honor is all mine. Your work at Data Dot is legendary.  I’ll cut to the chase Clara; I want you on the team.  Digital services are critical for FinTech moving forward and you have brains and charisma to run the sales division for digital.”

“I’m grateful that you want me to be on your team.  I know that we can build a culture of excellence drive the business forward.” Clara knew the right words to say, but as she sipped on her coffee, she felt the anxiety weighing on her. Data Dot had left her gutted emotionally.

“We need you to start ASAP.  You will lead a team of fifty sales professionals and answer to me directly.”

“ASAP…as in after Christmas?”

“I’d like to onboard you this week, but I understand you have your hands full with the holidays and your current business endeavor.  We could aim December 26th?”

“Less than two weeks,” Clara thought over the timeline.  She had to take the job, there was no question – it was an answered prayer – but why did it seem so daunting to say yes. “That would work…Can I have twenty-four hours to think it over.”

“What’s to think about?  You are an all-star and I want you on the team,” Maddy was persuasive. “If money is the concern, I think you’ll find this number rather convincing.”

Maddy handed Clara a proposal with a figure that made her weak in the needs. It was more than she ever could make at Data Dot…or selling cupcakes.

“I don’t see how I can refuse, but I need to review with my business partner,” Clara stalled.

“Welcome to the team, Clara.” Maddy gave her a hug before walking purposefully out of Soulful Java.

“It sounds like congratulations are in order,” Lexie refilled Clara’s mug.

“Yeah,” Clara visibly conflicted.

“You did just get offered your dream job, right?”

“Yes and no,” Clara sighed. “I am excited, and this is an excellent opportunity, but its bittersweet. I have enjoyed working as a baker.”

“You are an amazing baker and honestly I think you can continue to build Clara’s Creations into a successful long-term business, but I understand that you have to think about job security.  FinTech is a big company,” Lexie encouraged. “Have you talked to Matt?”

“I mentioned the interview.  He is supportive.”

“Well, he’ll walk to the moon for you.  He is head over heels for you.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Clara protested. “We’re just friends.”

“And Rudolph doesn’t have a red nose.” Lexie rolled her eyes. “Matt likes you – yes he respects you as a businesswoman but is also attracted to you.”

“I don’t know,” Clara cheeks were redder than Rudolph’s nose.

“You like him too, but I get it – it’s awkward to say that to the ‘boss.’”

“We’ve never talked about our dating lives.  Does he have a…”

“No, he is single.  He did date a teacher for a few months, but they broke up and she moved to California.”

“He did ask me to The Nutcracker…”

“Whatever you decide Matt will support you – but he will be disappointed to see you go from the shop.  He really needs to hire you on as a manager.”

“Lexie, you are too nice.”

“Seriously, Matt is way too busy working at the firm to manage this place fulltime.  He needs a partner.”

Before they could continue the conversation, a crowd appeared.

Clara said a silent prayer for direction. “God guide my steps.”

~

         “Clara is nice,” Becca noted as she laced her ice skates.  Downtown Bedford Springs has an ice rink set up every December by the town Christmas tree.  “I think you should marry her.”

         “Becca,” Matt nearly choked with surprise.  Kids can be blunt. “Clara is a friend.”

         “I know you just work together, but I can tell you like her and she likes you.  So, you should get married.”

         “It is a little more complicated than that,” Matt laughed.

         “Will you be sad if she takes the other job?”

         “No Clara deserves to get the job -she is more than qualified.”

         “If Clara takes that big tech job, will she be able to work at Soulful Java?” Becca genuinely concerned.

         “Enough about Clara,” Matt’s brows furrowed, clearly embarrassed. “Let’s go skating.”

         “She can’t quit – she makes magical cupcakes.  Tell her not to quit, Uncle Matt.”

         “For the record, I hope Clara stays, but that’s her decision.” Matt could see Clara had made quite an impression on his niece.  “Race you to the candy cane bridge,” Matt hit the ice.

Chapter 13

         “The CEO of FinTech reached out to you?” Emily on the edge of her seat as her sister filled her in on the job opportunity Saturday night.

         “Apparently she heard about my work on ransomware prevention in finance at Data Dot and thought I’d be the perfect fit.”

         “This is a Christmas miracle – major raise, heading a sales team…”

         “It’s a terrific opportunity,” Clara’s lukewarm reaction didn’t get past Emily.

         “Then why the long face?”

         “Starting a new job is just stressful that’s all…”

         “And?”

         “It feels good to be baking again and owning my own business. I was married to Data Dot.  For years all I focused on was work and it feels good to create something sweet and fun.”

         “You are quickly becoming Bedford Springs Queen of Cupcakes.” Emily could understand the frustration.  She often worried about Clara – she had witnessed her sister pour her entire life in Data Dot. Clara had avoided dating, hobbies, everything but work. “You don’t have to take the job.”

         “I do, the salary is amazing, and I can make a significant impact at FinTech.” Clara reasoned. “I can still bake – on the side?”

         “I understand that money is important, and you need stable employment – but don’t sell yourself short sis. You are talented and you deserve to be happy.  Baking cupcakes or working as corporate expert.”

         “Hi Aunt Clara, how is the cupcake business?” Lucy entered the conversation.

         “It’s sweet. I wanted to see if I could name a new cupcake recipe after you. ‘Lucy’s Sweet Bread’ inspired from Saint Lucia Day in Sweden.”

         “We learned about her in school,” Lucy smiled. “Her name means light and feast day is celebrated on December 13th to light the way to Christ.  She helped bring food and aid to persecuted Christians during the fourth century in Rome.  Her feast day is a big holiday in Sweden. Girls and boys dress up in white gowns and deliver yummy Christmas treats. Young girls dress up as Saint Lucy with a crown of candles.”

         “This Lucy cupcake will have a sweet bread taste, similar to Swedish treats sprinkled with stars to represent light in darkness.” Clara explained. “You are a light in my life Lucy.”

         “I can’t wait to try the cupcake.  You should make jelly star cookies too, dusted with powdered sugar.” 

         “Future Master Chef here,” Clara hugged her niece. “I need to drop off a few orders before heading home.  See you tomorrow at church?”

         “Sounds good,” Emily walked her sister to the door. “I’m proud of you Clara and I support you whatever you decide.”

Chapter 14:

         Sunday at St. Mark’s is a peaceful time for Clara to recharge. She prayerfully listened, preparing her heart of Christmas in the season of Advent.

         “God, I need some direction. I am grateful for the job offer, but is it your will for me? Guide my steps.”

         After Mass ended, the congregation migrated to the Parish Hall for coffee and conversation. Clara provided a platter of vanilla cupcakes and cookies.

         “We love your cupcakes,” Lydia Williams, church volunteer coordinator tracked Clara down. “Any chance you can help us plan the Valentine’s Day Bake Sale. It raises money for the youth group and food bank.”

         “Of course.  I’d love to help,” Clara smiled, happy to give back.

         “I heard what happened to you at Data Dot,” Lydia continued. “What a nightmare, but I’m so grateful you’ve rebounded. Your cupcake business is booming.”

         “I’m starting a new job in tech job in January, but I have enjoyed Clara’s Creations for the holiday season.”

         “I know Matt Orsay sings your praises.  He calls you his Christmas miracle.”

         “You know Matt?”

         “He is my neighbor,” Lydia acknowledged. “He brings me coffee beans every week.” 

         “I’ve enjoyed working with him.”

         “You have made quite the impression on Matt, I think,” Marjorie not one to mince words.

         Clara excused herself from the conversation when she saw her niece at the church craft table.

         “We’re making a Jesse Tree each ornament tells the story of Jesus’s coming.”

         “Fun,” Clara picked up a set of crayons. Coloring was just the medicine she needed.

~

         After church, Clara dropped by Soulful Java, hoping to speak with Matt about her new job and discuss options moving forward for Clara’s Creations.

         “Matt’s not here,” Lexie sensed Clara’s disappointment. “He volunteers at his church food pantry on Sundays, but said he’d swing by after four.”

         “How are sales today?” Clara shifted the subject.

         “Busy! We have sold out of most cookies and cupcakes. Lots of clients buying beans for holiday gifts.”

         “You know we should make a holiday gift display – by checkout. Mugs, tees, coffee beans, gift cards…”

         “Good idea,” Lexie helped tweak the display. “I’ll tell clients to check out the gift table when check out.”

         Clara spent the next two hours completing her next round of holiday baking for Soulful Java and a handful of special orders.

         “Christmas is only twelve days away,” Clara thought as she blended the sugarplum mix. “I need to get caught on Christmas shopping.  I still need to get Emily a gift…”

         “Hey frosty, can I sample your latest creation?”

         “Hi Matt, I’m glad you’re here. I hoped we could catch up.”

         “Love to. Can I grab you a coffee?”

         “I have been craving a jingle bell coffee.”  The holiday blend is a vanilla latte with extra espresso, whipped cream with candy bell on top.

         The pair found a table by the Christmas tree.

         “Santa confirmed he can come to Soulful Java next Saturday. He is looking forward to your cookies and cupcakes.”

         “I will have plenty of Santa cookies ready for the man with a bag.” Clara savored a sip of the coffee. “Lexie said we’ve collected a lot of presents for the toy drive.”

         “That’s fantastic!” Matt realized he still needed to get Becca a gift. “Speaking of gifts, I could use your help.  I need to get Becca a gift and I am clueless.  Any ideas?”

         “I need to swing by Animal Cracker Toys to buy a dress for Lucy’s doll. I could pick up a gift for Becca if you like.”

         “Mind if I tag along?”

         “Sure,” Clara gulped down the coffee.  “Becca mentioned she is into art.”

         “She likes to go horseback riding too…”

         “We’ll find the perfect gift.”

         “How did your interview go?”

         “Um…I got the job” Clara struggled to look Matt in the eyes. “Director of Sales at Fintech.”

         “Wow – congratulations,” Matt’s eyes lit up – happy for Clara, but inside his stomach twisted in knots.

         “I’m excited, but to be honest, it is a big transition…”

         “You will be amazing!” Matt encouraged. “I don’t want to sound selfish, but I will miss having you around Soulful Java every day. I do hope you’ll still spare some time to bake – Clara’s Cupcake Creations are a crowd pleaser.”

         “I’d love to work here part-time; it just depends on my schedule.” Clara knew that the position would demand most of her time – and knew she would have to put her cupcake business on the backburner.

         “I support you, but don’t want to lose you.” Matt furrowed his brow – searching for words.

         “Don’t worry, you won’t get rid of me that easily. I have a coffee addiction.”

         “I have some news too, and I’d like your feedback.”

         “Let’s walk and talk,” Clara suggested. “Animal Crackers is only a few blocks.”

         Bedford Springs is always festive at Christmas – streets adorned with colorful lights and storefronts decked with holly and cheerful displays. Street musicians played sax and violin versions of familiar carols.

         Animal Crackers is located by the Children’s Museum. It is stocked with unique toys and board games.

         “Becca would love this ‘Little Van Gogh’ art kit. It teaches her how to paint ‘Starry Night.’  I also recommend Ticket to Ride Junior.” Clara suggested.

         “What about Rudolph?” Matt pulled a large Rudolph stuffed animal from the shelf.

         “You can never go wrong with Rudolph.”

         “What do you want for Christmas, Clara?” Matt pressed as they checked out.

         “Nothing, but peace on earth and goodwill to humanity.” Clara dismissed.  She preferred to give rather than receive.

         “Well, if you think of anything let me know.”

         “Your allowing me to sell my cupcakes at Soulful Java is the best gift I could ask for,” Clara pivoted. “What did you ask Santa for, Matt?”

         “She’s standing right here – a baker who gets coffee.” He laughed.

          “I’ll make you a dozen cupcakes with extra frosting,” Clara didn’t mind Matt’s arm being around hers. “You said you wanted to discuss something…about work?”

         “I spoke with my uncle and the community college wants me to design and oversee their expansion project in January.”

         “I read about the project on the Bedford Springs Herald website. It is the largest expansion in the history of BSCC.” Clara noted. “That is a wonderful opportunity.”

         “Yes, it is, but I don’t think I can accept.”

         “Because of the coffee shop?”

         “A project this scale will prevent me from being a hands-on manager. I won’t be able to actively run the shop for at least six months.”

         Clara could understand his dilemma, she had the same conflicted feelings in her own career transition.

         “Soulful Java is your passion and I understand how hard it will be to take a backseat role in your business.”

         “I don’t think I can physically do it.  I don’t have a backup manager and to get someone trained will take some time.”

         “I think you can ramp an assistant manager fairly quickly.  I’m happy to help you interview candidates.”

         “I actually planned to offer you the job, but I understand you can’t turn FinTech down.”

         “Yeah,” Clara had a million things she wanted to say. ‘Yes, I want to manage the shop,’ but her reason sidelined her.

         “If you were in my shoes, what would you do?”

         “I cannot answer that for you, but I know you are super talented, and the community college project would be an amazing experience.  If you can work, it out to find a qualified manager for Soulful Java – then you need to take it.” Clara paused. “But don’t give up your dream – Soulful Java is amazing, and I know it will continue to grow and evolve into the best coffeehouse in the state.  You just need balance and to hire help.”

         “I appreciate the advice.” Matt squeezed her hand. “Thanks for helping me find Becca the perfect gift. I gave her a ninja set last year and it was a disaster.  At least this Christmas I’ll be cool Uncle Matt.”

         “Becca adores you.”

         “Well, she likes you too.” Matt didn’t go into details about Becca’s matchmaker plans.

         “I better get home to feed Pumpkin Spice,” Clara noticed the time. “I’m catering an event tomorrow – but see you Tuesday?”

         “Counting down the minutes, frosty.” Matt nearly leaned in for a kiss but decided to wait for mistletoe.  ‘No need to mess up a friendship.’

Click here for Part IV

Cupcake Christmas Story

A Cupcake Christmas Story – Part II

Chapter 6:

         Clara spent the rest of the day prepping for her new role as a ‘professional baker.’  As much as her sensibility told her to not get carried away by this temporary job, she could not help but have her cake and eat it too. She hadn’t realized the toll the long hours at Data Dot had taken on her mental and physical health. The opportunity to bake an income with her passion was icing on the cake and she planned to savor the sweetness.

         “I’ll focus on finding a ‘real’ job in January.” Clara decided as she perused the baking aisle at the grocery store.

         After a quick dinner of leftover lasagna, Clara began experimenting in the kitchen – perfecting the week’s recipes. Matt suggested ‘Clara’s Cupcakes’ for her baking business.

         “It does have a nice ring to it, but I am baking more than just cupcakes. How about Clara’s Cupcakes and Creations?” Clara thought aloud as Pumpkin Spice jumped on her lap. “What do you think sweet kitty?”

         “Meow,” Pumpkin Spice purred softly.

         “Clara’s Cupcakes and Creations it is.”

         In addition to her break baking for Soulful Java, Clara was surprised to receive nearly a dozen holiday orders from families she met at the Winter Carnival.   

“I need to get a book of business and organize everything in Excel,” Clara realizing this demand meant a more focused approach to ensure orders were met.

         Realizing she was beginning to have a real side hustle Clara’s business brain went to work. She stared by creating a custom log with Adobe and Canva.

         She decided it wouldn’t hurt to set up a social media presence on Facebook and Instagram. She tweaked Lucy’s business card with her new logo.

         “Maybe I can make a business out of my baking passion after all.” Clara smiled as she looked at her list of holiday orders. She headed to the kitchen and started mixing her cupcake base. “Here we go.”

Clara felt more energized than she had in years. While she loved her job at Data Dot, she realized how it drained her from work life balance. She never had time for self-care and nurturing her own hobbies outside of work. “God, you transform the worst into something good. I’m trusting you here.”

Chapter 7

         “Those cupcakes look to die for” Margie, one of Soulful Java’s regulars noted the pastry case of scrumptious cupcakes.

         “They are the best cupcakes I’ve ever eaten,” Matt enthused as he poured the Jamaican blend into Margie’s reusable coffee thermos. “They are made by a local baker, Clara Keene.”

         “It is too early to resist a cupcake. I’ll take the Winter Spice and Nutcracker Sweet cupcakes.” 

         Clara walked in during the tail end of the transaction.

         “Margie, this is Clara, the baker I told you about.” Matt introduced the pair.

         “Pleasure to meet you, Clara. I just took a bit of the Nutcracker Sweet and it is heavenly.”

         “That means so much, thank you!” Clara smiled trying to contain her excitement her heart racing faster than the Indy 500.

         “Margie is one of our ‘daily grinders’ at Soulful Java.” Matt had created a loyalty program for his regulars called ‘The Daily Grind,’ they get perks and free coffee once a month. “She is an attorney at Whitfield, Barclay and Drummonds across the street.”

         “We are having a holiday party on December 15th – I know your cupcakes would be a hit…can I place an order for four dozen cupcakes?”

         “We’d be honored,” Clara’s face lit up. She turned briefly to Matt, whose encouraging blue eyes met her in the moment. “It never hurts to have fresh brewed coffee with cupcakes – would you be interested in a few carafes of Soulful Java’s seasonal blend.”

         “Absolutely!”

         Clara spent the next ten minutes helping Margie customize her cupcake order. “I definitely recommend the Hot Cocoa Cupcakes along with the Nutcracker Sweet and Lavender Vanilla cupcakes.”

         “I better get to the firm. I’ve gained five pounds just thinking about how mouthwatering the cupcakes will be,” Margie joked as she rushed out the door.

         “I knew you would be a success,” Matt toasted Clara with a fresh cup of coffee. “And thanks for upselling the coffee.”

         “You do have the best cup of Joe in town. Coffee is always welcomed at a work party.”

         “I never thought about marketing my coffee to local businesses during the holidays. It is a clever idea.”

         “At Data Dot, we’d have coffee and pastries brought in from places like Panera during big team meetings,” Clara noted. “Being in the heart of downtown, Soulful Java could make an impact providing coffee for local businesses and even events.”

         “Absolutely, a lot of clients come and buy carafes to go for co-workers – I should advertise we cater coffee and treats.”

         “You roast your coffee in house-correct?”

         “Yes, all of our beans are roasted in house.”

         “Have you ever sold your coffee in bulk to businesses…I’m thinking you could sell packaged coffee with a local businesses logo, and they can give those out for holiday events or office promotions.”

         “You are the wizard at sales and marketing – or should I say sales architect.”

          “I enjoy creating ways for businesses to connect with their clients. It’s why I’ve been in sales for over a decade.”

         “That is why I wanted to open the coffee shop,” Matt explained. “I wanted to establish a gathering place for people to connect and enjoy the moment – be it that quick rush hour caffeine fix or catching up with an old friend over lattes.”

         “You’ve done a wonderful job with Soulful Java. The atmosphere has character. The architectural details you’ve incorporated make Soulful Java feel like a third place – a haven.”

         “That means a lot.”

         “I do have one question though.” Evaluating the space, Clara noticed that the café was devoid of any holiday cheer. “You have a holiday menu, but where are the Christmas decorations?”

         “I could say that I’m being a minimalist, but honestly I haven’t had time to decorate between managing the coffee shop and overseeing a building project with my firm.”

“I have tons of extra decorations, I’m happy to be a Christmas Elf and decorate the shop – if you want?”

“I don’t want to interfere with your schedule – you do have a lot of cupcakes to bake, but of course I’d love it if you’d help decorate the shop.”

“Sure, in fact I can ask Lucy and Becca to help – Tomorrow is a teacher workday, and they’d enjoy the activity.”

         “You really are the icing on the cake, Clara.” Matt corny humor made him more charming.

         “Speaking of icing, I’m going to be in the kitchen for the next few hours prepping your next order.”

Outwardly Clara held her poise, but inwardly Matt makes her feel like a schoolgirl. Sure, he is tall and handsome, with a crooked dimpled grin, but Clara was connecting to his warmth. She appreciated the fact that he admired her talent and business savvy. He made her nervous and relaxed at the same time – the paradox of a crush in motion.

Chapter 8

         Luckily, Clara had just finished baking a fresh batch of desserts when the café ran out of cupcakes at noon.

“I can’t believe we sold out already.  The case was full this morning.”

“We get a lot of lunch traffic and who can resist a cupcake with their peppermint mocha.”

“I have another batch of cupcakes in the oven, in the meantime we have fresh raspberry crumble tarts and Santa Cookie mini cakes.”

“I might have to steal a tart – that gooey raspberry filling is too hard to resist.”

“As long as you pay for it first,” Clara teased.

“I know you are busy, but would you be interested in helping me with an event on Friday?”

“Sure, give me the details.”

“I’m on the Historical Architecture Board and we are hosting a Christmas open house at the historic Thornton House. I am going to be serving coffee and hot cocoa on the grounds. I could use some help and baked goods?”

“I love the Thornton House, what a gorgeous property. I used to volunteer there in high school with my mom.”

“Wow, small world.”

“Outside of baking and cupcake sales, I’m a huge history buff.”

“Another thing we have in common.”

“I could make a spiced carrot cake to serve Friday. We can sell the slices and would be easy to serve.”

Lexie, a high school senior, who works as a part time barista walked into the conversation.

“Hey! Wow, I can see why Matt was so hyped for your baking.  Those desserts look like they came from the North Pole.”

“I saved you a test santa cookie.”

“I’d love to bake with you sometime – can you teach me how not to burn my cupcakes. I’m great with a painter’s palette but I burn everything in the kitchen.”

“Baking is just another form of art, you’ll catch on.” Clara encouraged. “What I want to learn is how to make the peppermint latte.”

“That’s easy,” Lexie shrugged. “I’ll show you.”

“You two have fun. I’ve got to run to a firm meeting,” Matt noticed the time. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Chapter 9:

Clara spent the evening watching Carolina basketball and Hallmark movies while finishing up an order of Winter Spice cupcakes.

Word of mouth spread quickly, especially with Emily and Lucy handling cupcake ‘PR.’ Clara had two dozen orders through New Year’s Eve.

“I am grateful for the business, but I don’t want to overbook myself,” Clara eyeing her calendar. “I can offer bulk orders on standard goods like cookies or Nutcracker Sweet cupcakes. That was I can bake in bulk without losing quality control. We can sell them at Soulful Java and that way Matt and I both benefit.”

Looking at her balance sheet, Clara was shocked that in only a few short days she generated enough cupcake revenue to pay the bulk of her mortgage payment.

“Thank you, God, for this opportunity.” She expressed gratitude as she whipped up the special-order batch of Sugar Plum cupcakes her sister’s book club ordered.

~

         “Thanks for looking after Lucy and Becca today,” Emily hugged her sister as she entered their cozy brick ranch. “Usually I have Thursdays off, but I have a staging at 11 a.m.”

         Emily is an interior designer who started a staging business with her realtor husband.

         “Don’t thank me, sis, you know I love spending time with Lucy and her friend, Becca.”

         “How are things going with Matt?”

         “Cupcakes are selling out and we have a good business plan. I’m glad you and Lucy pushed me to start my own side business.”

         “I’m proud of your baking success, but how are things with Matt? He is drop-dead gorgeous and obviously is attracted to you.”

         “Matt is a nice guy, but it is strictly business.”

         “You know you like him,” Emily teased. “You get that lovelorn flicker in your eye when you talk about him.”

         “Give it a break, Em,” Clara rolled her eyes.

         “It wouldn’t hurt to put up the mistletoe in the coffee shop, just in case.”

         Before Clara could plan a retort, Lucy ran into the room. 

         “Aunt Clara!!!”

         “Hey Luce, you ready for a Christmas decorating party?”

         “Beyond excited! Samantha and I painted ornaments last night to help decorate.” Lucy and her doll were wearing matching Christmas outfits with light up ornament necklaces.

         “I love your holiday spirit.”

         They arrived on the tail end of morning run hour. The coffee line stretched to the door.

         “Busy morning!” Clara caught Matt’s attention.

         “With the frosty weather outside everyone is in the mood for a winter latte.” Matt had been manning the register; his morning baristas were rushing around like mad elves as they brewed cup after cup of coffee. “Becca is in the office making paper angels.”

         “I figured we’d start decorating once the rush hour calms down a bit,” Clara accessed. “Do you need help with the register?”

         “I appreciate the offer, but you and the girls can prep the Christmas cheer.” Matt instructed in between customers. “You can check the inventory in the bakery case.”

         “You sold out of cupcakes already?” Clara’s jaw dropped.

         “We need to triple our order to keep up with the demand– your sweets are a huge hit.”

         “Fortunately, I have another dozen cupcakes in the kitchen – hopefully, that will tide you over until this afternoon.”

         Becca and Lucy suggested a polar express theme.

         “This is the coffee express,” Becca giggled as she hung a cupcake ornament on the shop’s Christmas tree. “I drew a picture of a polar bear drinking hot cocoa. Uncle Matt makes the best hot chocolate – it is so creamy.”

         “Soulful Java is the official hot cocoa station for Santa,” Clara smiled as she placed a north pole sign by the coffee counter. “Which makes you honorary elves.”

         “Really?” The girls’ eyes lit up like Rudolph’s nose.

         While the girls continued to hang the ornaments, Clara tracked down Matt for a refill on her coffee.

         “It feels like the North Pole in here…the only thing missing is snow,” Matt complimented.

         “I have an idea I’d like to run past you.”

         “Shoot.”

         “Since Soulful Java’s is the official hot cocoa of the North Pole, wouldn’t it be cool to schedule a meet and greet with Santa. It could be a hot cocoa event – I know you’d get a ton of business -plus it would be fun for families.”

         “It’s a great idea – but St. Nick has a busy schedule. How do you propose get him here before Christmas?” Matt chose his words carefully with Becca and Lucy within an earshot.

         “Let’s just say I have some North Pole connections.”

~

         After taking Lucy and Becca to lunch at BLT’s a neighborhood deli, she taught the girls how to make Christmas confetti cupcakes.

         “We are going to mix the vanilla cake then we’ll add in the Christmas sprinkles.” Clara poured the batter into the cupcake cups. Within fifteen minutes the moist batch of cupcakes emerged from the oven.

         Lucy and Becca had fun decorating their cupcakes, while Clara worked on a reindeer red icing adorned with soft peppermint sticks.

         Becca’s mom the girls up just after two.

         “I’m Tracy, Matt’s sister.” Matt’s elder sister was tall, at least 5’10 with an athletic build. “It is a treat to meet you in person. Matt loves collaborating with you.” Tracy suspected Matt’s crush on Clara, but she did not bring it up.

         “He really saved the day,” Clara brought Tracy up to speed on her job situation.

         “God blessed both of you – your cupcakes have helped drive business to the coffee shop.” Tracy thoughtful. “Matt has given his all to this shop, but he works so many hours between Soulful Java and his architecture practice.”

         “He knows coffee and this shop is a heartbeat in the community.”

         “I can see that now, but I have to admit I worry about him. I’m glad he has a side kick to help him on the business side now.”

         “I wouldn’t go that far – I’m just helping out.”

         “Thanks Clara,” Becca and Lucy gave her a hug. “We had so much fun.”

         “You are the best elves in town. Have fun at the children’s museum.”

~

         “Hopefully, this is enough treats to get you through tomorrow.” Clara filled the display case.

         “Words cannot express how grateful I am for your help.  The shop looks like a winter wonderland and sales are way up.”

         “They may buy the cupcakes but remember they come for the coffee…speaking of which I would love an espresso.”

         “On the house.”

         “I’ve got to run,” Clara noticed the time.

         “What are you up to tonight?” Matt asked, hoping she did not have a date.

“I have Bible study on Thursday nights. We’re focusing on Isaiah during Advent.”

“That’s awesome – we have a men’s breakfast at my church once a month – I supply the coffee.”

“Coffee is one of God’s great graces,” Clara’s nose crinkled up as she smiled.

“See you tomorrow.”

Chapter 9

         The sweet aroma of sugar and spice filled Clara’s kitchen as she pulled out her pumpkin gingerbread muffins. She drizzled the muffins with her secret cream cheese glaze.

         “It smells like Santa’s kitchen in here.” Emily let herself in, noticing the well-organized prep and packaging center. “Your condo looks like the Keebler elves factory.”

         “I’ve been baking harder than Mrs. Claus and the Buddy the Elf combined,” Clara responded mixed her cupcake batter for her next batch of sweets. Her apron was covered in flour and sugar. “I’ve baked four dozen cookies, 56 cupcakes and a batch of muffins since six a.m.”

         “Need any help? Lucy’s shopping for gifts with her dad. I’m happy to lend a hand, just give me an apron.”

         “Would you be willing to make a few deliveries?”

         “You don’t trust me in the kitchen?” Emily teased, recognizing her lack of baking skills. “Sure, I can deliver a few orders.”

         “You are a lifesaver! I should be caught up with all my orders in an hour, giving me just enough time to change and get ready to meet Matt at the Thorne House.”

         “A date with Matt – sounds like Clara has met her nutcracker prince.”

         “Oh, shut up,” Clara rolled her eyes. “If you must know, I’m helping Matt sell coffee and cupcakes at the Thorne House Christmas Open House fundraiser tonight.  He volunteers with their foundation”

         “Don’t they host weddings there?”

         “It’s one of the oldest houses in the city and each year they host a Christmas Open House to raise money for the foundation,” Clara ignored her sister’s wedding bell comment. “You and the family should come. We’ll be serving coffee and hot cider with sweet treats. The open house features a dozen booths with fun family activities about the history of the house.”

         “That’s right up your alley – you love history and architecture.”

         “It should be fun and will provide free publicity for the coffee shop.”

         “I’m glad your passion for baking is turning into a lucrative holiday business,” Emily bit her lip. She was torn – on one side she was grateful that her sister was able to take a much-needed break from the corporate work; on the flipside, Emily was concerned about the long-term stability of a baking business.”

         “It is all thanks to Lucy – she is the brains behind the operation,” Clara averred. “She is my CIO – Chief Idea Officer.”

         “I am lucky to have two smart and beautiful gals like you and Lucy in my life,” Emily began to load the boxes in her car. “Make sure to bundle up tonight it is going to be chilly.”

         “Perfect weather for hot cocoa and gingerbread cupcakes.”

         Putting the last batch of sweets in the oven, Clara set the timer and started boxing up the next set of orders.  She felt gratification each time she tagged her logo on the box. 

         “If this is going to work past Christmas, I need to rely on repeat customers – especially for birthdays and seasonal events.” Clara recognized a lot of her success was tied to holiday demand for treats.  She wondered if she’d have a market for her business beyond the coffee shop once January rolled around.

         She had submitted several resumes with top tech companies, but admittedly her job search had been on pause with her new side business.

         With her daily orders completed, Clara showered and changed out of her baking gear.  She knew the Thorne House event with Matt was still business, but she couldn’t help but feel like a giddy schoolgirl as she picked out her outfit.  “I’m trying too hard,” she acquiesced after trying on four outfits.

         She settled on a pair of deep plum-colored cords, flannel and snowflake sweater with her burgundy winter jacket. She topped off her ensemble with a silver and gold scarf Emily had given her last Christmas.

         “Meow,” Pumpkin spice rubbed against her leg.

         “Hey sweet kitty,” she knelt to pet her cat, who rolled around begging for attention. “Love you, but I’ve got to run. I’ve still got four orders to deliver before I meet Matt.”

         “Meow,” Pumpkin spice slow-blinked – a cat kiss.

         “Dog’s may be man’s best friend, but cats are a lady’s fur-ever friend.”  

Chapter 10:

         “Have a sweet Christmas,” Clara, wearing her light up Santa hat, spread cheer as she dropped off each delivery.

         “My book club is going to devour these,” Sara Myer, a friend of Stella’s salivated over the vanilla cupcakes with glitter snow frosting.”

         “I hope they enjoy every bite.” Clara heart raced with excitement of serving another satisfied customer. “I also included a sample of Reindeer coffee from Soulful Java.”

         “I love their coffee; I wish they’d open another location closer to our neighborhood. It is hard for me to get downtown with work and the kids afterschool activities.”

         “I’ll mention the feedback to Matt.”

Mulling over Sara’s comment, a lightbulb went off in Clara’s head.  While Soulful Java’s downtown location is in a bustling neighborhood, Sara was right that it was hard to frequent unless you worked downtown or were in the area for a specific event. 

“I have an idea…”  Clara struggled to hide her excitement as she rushed downtown, her smile brighter than the north star.

~

         The Thorne House is in heart of downtown’s historic Oak Hollow District of Bedford Springs.  The stately Victorian mansion is one of the finest examples of Second Empire Victorian in the southeast. 

         “Hi frosty,” Matt gave Clara the nickname because she is apt to be covered in frosting and she is ‘sweeter than sugar.’ “You look radiant. I love your scarf.”

         “Emily made it for me – she is the seamstress and I’m the baker.” Clara wrinkled her nose. “I have a great idea I want to share with you, but first let’s set up our booth, the crowds will show up soon.”

         The Christmas open house included several local food and crafts vendors. The house was impeccably decorated with wreaths, lighted candles and a dozen Christmas trees.  The highlight of the event included historic holiday themed house tours.

         “We’re open for business,” Clara welcomed their first customers with a ho-ho-ho laugh. “Come try our hot cocoa – it is the official drink of the North Pole.”

         The crowds gathered quickly – hungry for cupcakes and hot holiday drinks. Clara and Matt barely had a chance to breath as they served the never-ending line for the next two hours.

         “Wow what a night, we are completely out of hot cocoa and cider…” Clara inventoried.

         “And only a few cups of coffee left in the carafe.” Matt grinned. “And even better – we sold a ton of inventory – coffee, tee-shirts and of course cupcakes.”

         “Cheers to a successful night,” Clara counted the till. “The best part is all the profits go to help the Thorne House.”

“We make a winning team,” As Matt’s eyes locked with Clara’s he noticed a sliver of blue specks in her green eyes.

“Speaking of which, I have an idea I wanted to run by you.”

“I’m all ears, frosty.”

Clara paused to collect her thoughts. “I think you should consider expanding the Soulful Java brand outside of the downtown headquarters.”

“You mean expand to multiple locations?” Matt couldn’t hide skepticism. “That is not in the plan now.  Soulful Java is about community and fostering a downtown renaissance of sorts.”

“I completely agree –you don’t need to expand brick and mortar locations right now. I love the character and charm of the shop’s downtown location – is it part of the city’s ‘soul,’” Clara grabbed the last bag of coffee beans and handed it to Matt. “I think you should consider selling your coffee roasts at other local retailers.”

Clara explained her conversation with Sara and the advantages of selling the beans in area gift shops and groceries.

“That is a good idea,” Matt thought it over. “Of course, we want to the shop to be the preferred point of sale, but not everyone can get downtown during the week.  Other local coffee shops sell their beans at local stores like Season’s Fine Foods. It would drive extra revenue.”

“And as new coffee lovers are introduced to your amazing java then they will flock downtown,” Clara predicted.

“I’m beginning to think I should hire you as my marketing director.”

“I don’t know if you can afford me,” Clara teased. “Seriously though, I am enthusiastic about helping Soulful Java thrive…I don’t want to step on your toes, but I have some other ideas if you’re interested.”

“Keep going…” Matt leaned in with interest.

“I think you should consider selling your coffee online.”

“Actually, I do sell my coffee roasts and other merchandise on the website.”

“Which is a good start, but you can build on that.” Matt could see the passion in Clara’s eyes for his business.  “Have you heard of a coffee exchange or coffee subscription service like Trade?”

“I’ve seen it advertised in Java Daily and a few other industry websites, but I haven’t had time to give it much thought,” Matt shrugged. Between his architecture firm and running Soulful Java he had not had done much with marketing.  He appreciated having her as a sidekick. Even if deep down he knew she would eventually have to cut back on her commitment once she found a new full time tech sales job.

“You should consider signing up as a vendor. I did my research, and it is painless to set-up.” Clara explained. “My friend Lindsey clued me into subscription coffee. She receives a random roast from various independent coffee shops each month directly at her doorstep.  She said is a great way to learn about different roasters and if she really likes a brand, she reorders it time and again.”

“It is an intriguing idea. I’d love to try it out, if you’ll help me.” Matt’s crooked grin left Clara speechless for a minute.  She pushed back her romantic feelings.

“Mind if I explore the grounds and check out the other vendors for fifteen minutes?”

“Of course,” Matt encouraged as he boxed up the last of their supplies. “When you get back, I’d love to give you a private tour of the Thorne.”  He offered, aware that Clara wanted to see the interior decorations.

“Sounds like a plan.”

Clara felt like a million bucks as she perused the neighboring booths.  As much as she enjoyed tech sales, working with Matt, and creating a business plan to grow her baking business alongside his coffee shop excited her more than anything she had done in her career.

“If only it could last, but I know I need to get into career path beyond sugar and frost.” Clara breathed in the crisp December air, silently praying to the Holy Spirit for direction.

As she eyed a collection of handmade pottery, Clara bumped headfirst into her old boss.

“Uggh,” her stomach tied up in knots like barbed twine.

“Miss. Keene, it is so good to see you,” Bob Fairchild, CEO of Data Dot sounded friendly on the surface, but she could sense the strained robotic undertones.

‘Years of my life to this creep!’ It took prayer to keep her from lashing out at the man who personally oversaw the company layoffs.

“Mr. Fairchild,” Clara pressed her lips so hard they started to turn purple.

“I am so sorry we had to let you go. You are a true talent, and you will land on your feet quickly. My door is always open if you need a reference.”

Clara had gone over all the revenge filled tirades she wanted to say to Fairchild since her layoff but put them on ice.

“I have the enterprise and fortitude to exceed anywhere.  In fact, this fork in the road has given me the opportunity to start my own baking business and of course I’ll land in another tech job soon enough.”

“I didn’t realize you were the ‘Clara’ behind ‘Clara’s cupcakes and sweets,’” Fairchild was genuinely perplexed, as was Clara.  How did he know about her cupcakes? “I tried one at the Landon’s Christmas Party last night.”

The Landon’s were friends of her parents, who through a big holiday fundraiser for the science museum every Christmas.  Mrs. Landon asked Clara to provide 48 cupcakes for the fundraiser.

“You and your wife endowed the new science wing earlier this year,” Clara acknowledged. While their donation was commendable it seemed shortsighted given the fact that Data Dot announced it was on the verge of bankruptcy several months later.

“Your cupcakes are excellent – I know it is late notice, but would you be willing to cater dessert for the Data Dot holiday party.”

‘Is he for real?’ Clara wanted to knock sense into him. He had just laid her and hundreds of employees off right before Christmas and was talking about catering the holiday party to said laid off employee.

“I appreciate the consideration, but I am booked up through the holiday.” Clara rushed off before the conversation could continue further. “It felt good to tell that jerk I own my own business.” Clara would not let this rotten Grinch spoil her Christmas cheer.

“Clara, wait up,” Matt spotted her by the twelve-foot Frazier fir Christmas tree. “I got you some peppermint bark from the Cacao Chocolate booth.” Cacao is a locally owned confectionery known for their homemade candies. Clara and Matt used Cacao’s peppermint sticks at Soulful Java.

“My favorite,” Clara savored the sweet chocolatey treat.

Matt enjoyed giving Clara a private tour of the expansive Thorne Manor.

“The manor was built in 1879 by Dr. Elias Thorne as a wedding gift for his bride Rebecca Samuels. It has twelve bedrooms, three bathrooms, not to mention a music and game room, sitting and formal rooms.” Matt led Clara through the winding house, with its thick stone and cedar walls with ornate carvings and detail work.

“The stained-glass windows in the music room are heavenly,” Clara eyes wide with adoration as she looked at the beautiful waterfall designed panels.

“The windows are house’s most prized treasure.  They were designed by Tiffany studios.  It’s a miracle they are in such decent shape honestly.”

“I am blown away by the society’s stunning restoration of the house,” Clara admitted.  “I remember when the Thorne house was nearly condemned when I was in high school.  I’m so grateful for the investment in restoring it to its former glory.”

“It is a work in progress, but the architectural society has a lot of great plans to continue to weave Thorne into the community with tours and serving as a venue.”

The pair narrowly avoided the mistletoe as they stood by the garland adorned grand staircase.

“Follow-me upstairs,” Matt locked hands with Clara as he led her up the winding staircase to the interior balcony. “There is a secret passage if you unlock this door.” Matt turned a stone lion head, which surprisingly led to a narrow passage to what had been the family library.

“Wow, I feel like I stepped into a fairytale or mystery.”

“I feel like I’ve been living one with you,” Matt couldn’t believe how sappy he sounded. “I mean your cupcakes have turned the business around.”

“Right,” Clara blushed.  Both wanted to tell the other they were feeling the attraction of a winter romance but were too cool to compromise their business relationship just yet. “Thank you for taking a chance on me.  After losing my job – it’s been a true Christmas miracle.”

“We can be thankful for each other,” Matt leaned in.  “I want to show you something special, if you look at the fireplace – you’ll notice remnants of hand painted tile in a folk-art design.”

“It’s gorgeous.”

“Fun fact, my great-great grandfather was the assistant architect on the Thorne House and hand-picked those tiles from Seagrove.”

“You have a deep connection to this house and the community.” Clara intrigued. “It sounds like architecture is in your genes.”

“I’ve always had a passion for design and creating spaces that people love – to me it is about community, and I want to create places that provide community experience.  That’s why I opened Soulful Java.  The city wanted to tear down the historic building and knew if we could drive local businesses to the district, it would turn things around.  Soulful Java was born.”

The pair continued to chat as they toured the remainder of the house.  Matt explained that his architecture background and what got him hooked on coffee. Clara spilled the beans on her journey into software sales and her lifelong love of baking.

“I know it’s getting late, but are you hungry?” Matt inquired.  “There is an amazing all-night diner around the corner.”

“Metro Corner Diner? I love their food!” Clara had to admit her stomach was growling, plus she didn’t mind spending extra time with Matt.

“Perfect, my treat!”

Click here for Part III

Cupcake Christmas Story

A Cupcake Christmas Story (Part I)

A holiday novelette in the theme of cozy romance.

Summary: When Clara loses her tech job right before the holidays she turns her passion to baking into a business and sparks fly under the mistletoe with a coffee shop owner. First in a new series for Firehole Press

A Cupcake Christmas (Part 1)

Chapter 1:

         A pink slip was not the holiday card, Clara Keene expected to receive the Monday after Thanksgiving. In Scrooge like fashion, HR notified of her termination in a stale, impersonable email. No thank you, just goodbye.

“The timing is terrible – I just drained my savings getting my HVAC replaced last month and with Christmas coming up…” Clara battled her emotions, blindsided by the dreaded news. “Restructuring, what does that even mean? Our company made millions in profit last year.”

         Software sales has its ups and downs, but Clara had given her heart and soul to software encryption company Data Dot. For the past eight years, Clara worked her way up the ladder, often forgoing a social life to make sure she hit quota and helped grow the business. She was aiming for a merited promotion in January as VP of Sales Success.

As a top performer she should have been the last to lose her position, but the newly appointed CEO decided to appease investors by restructuring the organization to glean profits. Half of Data Dot’s sales team was let go via email.

Clara knew she would land on her feet, but the pain of losing a job she loved felt like a divorce. The severance package would get her through the month, but how was she going to pay her bills in January.       

Clara purchased a condo earlier in the year, and although it had a near perfect inspection – everything had gone wrong – from a burst pipe to the HVAC breaking down and issues with dry rot. She had used most of her savings to deal with the repairs, planning to build her savings back up in the new year.  Her cushion of $800.00 would not go far.

“I can find another job in the industry,” Clara thought aloud, “but realistically it could take eight weeks or more to get through the hiring process. A lot of companies don’t start hiring again until January.”

Taking a deep breath, Clara gathered all her strength and started working on an action plan. Her severance would help her through January 1st…so count that as a blessing. 

Running high on adrenaline from the shock of losing her job, Clara spent the entire day diving into LinkedIn applying for jobs. It would take prayers and her dogged resilience to keep from falling apart.

It was a quarter to six when Clara’s phone rang.  It was her nine-year-old niece, Lucy.

“Aunt Clara, I’m sorry about your job.”

“It’s okay Luce. How’s my favorite niece?”

“I’m your only niece.” Lucy kidded. “I wanted to invite you to our winter carnival tomorrow night at school.”

“Sounds fun.”

“My class is having a bake sale to raise money for our school trip to DC in the spring,” Lucy explained. 

     “Sounds like a fun trip.”

     “I need your help.  You know mom is a terrible baker and will burn everything. You on the other hand are baker extraordinaire. Can you bake your world-famous cupcakes and get my class to Washington?”

Clara had to laugh. It is true- her older sister Emily is terrible at baking.  She nearly set the house on fire trying to make gingerbread men one year.  Clara on the other hand loved to bake – she’d even taken classes at the university and was a certified pastry chef.  She dreamed once of owning her own bakery – but life had other plans. Software sales was her niche and it paid well, forcing her to put professional baking on the backburner.

“I don’t know about world-famous, but of course I’ll help,” Clara smiled – grateful to have such a sweet niece.  “When do you need them by?”

“Thursday afternoon. Three dozen cupcakes would be great.” Lucy filled Clara in on the details. “I’m making advertisements for the bake sale on my graphic design app. I’ll list you as Clara’s Christmas Cupcakes – straight from the North Pole.”

“Graphic design, wow that is advanced,” Clara was impressed by the cool electives Lucy’s elementary school offered. “I’m proud of your creativity and hard work at school.”

“Which cupcake flavors are you going to make?”

“Vanilla and chocolate are always good standbys, but I’ll make a Christmas cupcake too.”

“I like the ‘Grinch’ one you did last year with the green icing and peppermint sticks. It was cool how you make the middle of the cupcake have red icing – to show the Grinch had a heart.”

“Do you want to bake with me? I can pick you up from school tomorrow and we can make the cupcakes together?”

“That sounds great. We can watch Elf while we bake to get us in the holiday mood.”

“Buddy does love his sugar…” Clara laughed.  Her niece was just the medicine she needed to lift her spirits.

~

         After hanging up the phone with Lucy, Clara stomach twisted in knots.

“Is this baking anxiety,” Clara wondered if she could still create her ‘world-famous’ cupcakes. “I haven’t baked in over six months.”  To be perfectly honest, Clara couldn’t remember the last time she’d used her stove. With her hectic hours negotiating with clients and running large deals she had fallen into bad habits of getting take-out every night or skipping dinner.

Her orange tabby, ‘Pumpkin Spice,’ rubbed against her leg, roaring with calming purrs as if to encourage her.

“Pumpkin you always know how to make me feel better.”  Clara knelt and gave her sweet kitty a handful of treats.

Clara rummaged through her cupboard and grabbed her box of recipes. “One good thing about losing my job is this December I’ll actually have free time to bake over the holidays.”

Chapter 2

         “Hi sweet Lucy, are you ready to bake?” Clara hugged her niece after picking her up from school.

         “So excited!” Lucy’s blue eyes lit up; her blonde hair pulled loosely back into a ponytail. “I brought Samantha with me. She is not much of a baker, but we can teach her.” Samantha is Lucy’s favorite doll. They are inseparable.

         “I like Samantha’s Christmas dress,” Clara noticed the doll’s classic red and green plaid chiffon dress.

         “Mom designed Samantha several holiday dresses.”

         “Your mom always was the fashion designer.”  Clara pulled into her condo driveway. “Did you say the Nutcracker is the theme of the winter carnival?”

         “Yes, everything is Nutcracker themed,” Lucy lit up, “My class is performing the Nutcracker dance at the carnival. The choreography is a mix of ballet and modern dance. I’m playing the Sugar Plum fairy.”

         “That’s amazing. So, I tested several cupcake recipes last night and I created a Nutcracker theme for the cupcakes to coincide with the carnival.  Our menu: Sugar Plum Fairy, Nutty Nutcracker and Winter Spice cupcakes. I will also have a gluten free option.” Lucy had mentioned her best friend at school has gluten sensitivity.

         “That’s so creative! And how cool is it that your name is Clara – just like the girl in The Nutcracker!”

         “Sweet coincidence.”

         “I can design a menu with the prices.” Lucy proposed. “Can I make your business cards too?”

         “Business cards?” Clara burst out laughing. “You sound like a Junior CEO.”

         “Dad has them for his real-estate business,” Lucy paused. “Your cupcakes are so delicious you could sell them full time. So, you should be prepared, just in case clients want to put in Christmas orders.”

         “We have to mix the batter before I become the next Food Network star,” Clara loved the carefree spirit of Lucy. Kids are not afraid to dream big and believe in big dreams.

         Clara and Lucy spent several hours in the kitchen, baking up a storm. Lucy acted as chief taste tester.

         “The sugar plum icing is heavenly. So sweet and delicious.”

         “It is a mix of lavender and lemon, with organic food coloring…Lucy can you help decorate the sugar plum cupcakes?” Clara instructed her niece to drizzle each cupcake with snowflake sprinkles, peppermints, and gum drops.

         “These cupcakes are going to sell out!”

         “I hope so – I am excited for your class to go on a trip to Washington DC.”

         Clara’s sister picked Lucy up just before dinner.

         “Hey sis,” Emily popped her head into Clara’s condo. “It smells divine in here. Can I sample?”

         “Just one,” Clara handed her sister a winter spice cupcake with cream cheese frosting.

         “This is decadent. Forget software sales, you should open a bakery…”

         “That’s a pipe dream full of icing,” Clara rolled her eyes. “I love to bake, but I don’t think baking will pay my bills. I do hope these cupcakes raise tons of money for the school.”

         “God will lead you where you need to go – be it baking or software sales,” Emily encouraged. Though she hated the fact her sister lost her job, Emily could not help but see the layoff as a blessing. Clara had given up her life for her job and this time would give her time to reset – even restart her social life.

         “I’ll meet you at the Winter Carnival with the cupcakes.”

         “Love you,” Lucy embraced her aunt. “Thanks for letting me bake with you.”

         As Emily and Lucy drove away, Pumpkin Spice meowed for attention.

         “Okay kitty, your get a treat too.”

         Lost in the smell of sugar and spice, Clara dreamed for a moment…oh how fun it would be to own her own baking business… “Unfortunately, this sugar plum fairy needs to submit a few more applications before bed.”

Chapter 3

         The Winter Carnival exuded holiday charm with Nutcracker themed décor and holiday themed activities for families.

         Stepping into the school, Clara was greeted by a candy cane path leading to a large Christmas tree adorned with lights and ornaments made by the students in art class.

         The gym was transformed into a Sugar Plum Ballroom with life size nutcrackers guarding the doors.

         In addition to fun crafts and games, the carnival allows different school organizations to set-up information booths and fundraising stations.

         The art teacher was selling crafts including handmade nutcrackers, while the athletics department was auctioning off sports memorabilia.  The proceeds would fund low-income scholarships to the after-school rec league

         “Aunt Clara, over here!” Lucy shined in her crimson velvet dress and patten shoes.

         “Look at all these sweets,” Clara noticing the plates of cookies and homemade bars.

         “I made a menu and some business cards to put by your cupcakes. Just in case someone wants to order more.”

         “Thanks sweetie – you are certainly enterprising.” Clara noticed a cute freckled red head standing by Lucy.

         “This is Becca- my best friend.” Lucy introduced a cute brunette with freckles, wearing a Frozen ‘Let it Go’ jumper.

         “Nice to meet you Becca, I’m Clara.”

         “Just like the Nutcracker,” Lucy commented. “My aunt makes the best cupcakes.”

         “I’ll have to try one of these amazing cupcakes,” a male voice spoke suddenly behind Clara. She turned around abruptly to see a tall attractive man with deep hazel eyes. “How much?”

         “$4.00.” Becca and Lucy said in unison.

         “Give me two, then.” He handed them a twenty-dollar bill. “Keep the change.”

         “Clara – this is my uncle Matt,” Becca introduced the pair.

         Clara’s cheeks deepened to a rosy, red as he eyes met Matt’s.  He was the right mix of handsome – just dashing enough to swept you off your feet with his hazel eyes and warm smile, yet down to earth in his corduroy pants.

         “Nice to meet you Matt, I’m Lucy’s aunt,” Clara smiled, her cheeks rosy red. She hated feeling that flush of attraction, especially with a stranger who she would never see again. “Um…enjoy the cupcakes.”

         “These cupcakes look amazing – are you a professional baker?” Matt’s compliment genuine.

         “No, I just bake for fun.” She stammered, saving face with a smile.

         Matt bit into the first cupcake, savoring each bite.

         “Delicious – the best cupcake I’ve ever eaten, and I have had some amazing cupcakes.”

         “I’m glad you enjoy them,” Clara felt a burst of confidence, grateful their first customer enjoyed her sweet creation.

         “Listen, I own Soulful Java downtown, and the baker I worked with just moved out of state. I can brew the best cup of coffee in North Carolina, but without any pastries I am losing business left and right to the big chain competition. I’d love to sell your cupcakes in my store. Would you be interested?”

         “Wow that is a really nice offer, but I don’t know…” Clara, overwhelmed with emotions. Of course, it was a fantastic opportunity, but how sustainable was baking professionally for a local coffee shop. “I don’t have a professional grade kitchen.”

         “You can use the professional grade kitchen in the shop if you want.” Matt was persistent. “I know your cupcakes would be a hit with customers.” Before Clara could offer a word in edgewise, Lucy spoke up.

         “My aunt would love to bake for the coffee shop. However, she demands fair compensation for time and supplies.”

         “Your niece is quite the business expert,” Matt chuckled. “Of course, you will be compensated well.”

         “I guess we can give it a try,” Clara bit her lip.

         “Here is my business card. Stop by the store tomorrow and we can work out the details.”

         “I guess I’m in the cupcake business.”

Chapter 4

         “Thank you so much for donating the cupcakes,” Lucy offered her aunt a big hug. “We more than enough money to go to DC.”

         “That’s so exciting – you’ll get to see the Washington Monument and the Capitol and the National Zoo.”

         “All thanks to your delicious cupcakes,” Emily interjected as she packed up the booth. “They were a huge hit. Customers were gushing over how scrumptious they were. In fact, several members of the PTA may be contacting you for Christmas cupcake orders.”

         “That is very flattering, but…”

         “And I got Aunt Clara a job at Becca’s uncle’s coffee shop.”

         “What, really?”

         “No, it’s not really a job…”

         “Yes, it is,” Lucy insisted. “Becca’s Uncle Matt practically begged Aunt Clara to bake for him.”

         “He liked the cupcakes and asked me to bake some for his coffee shop, Soulful Java. I am meeting with him tomorrow.”

         “That is amazing Sis! I love Soulful Java – they make the best Americano in town.”

         “I’m honored, but honestly I’m not sure it’s feasible. I’m going to need to do more than bake cupcakes to pay my bills.” Clara tried to be sensible. “Still, it would be fun – to bake goodies for the coffee shop – at least until the owner, Matt finds a new fulltime baker.”

         “Speaking of Matt – he is single and looks like a movie star.”

         “Don’t be ridiculous,” Clara’s cheeks beet red.

         “It wouldn’t hurt for you to go on a date for once. You aren’t married to Data Dot anymore.”

         “I’ll admit Mr. Orsay is attractive, but I’m more concerned about the business of cupcakes right now.”

         “I’ve got to get Lucy ready for The Nutcracker recital.” Emily noticed the time.

         “I cannot wait to see Lucy as the Sugar Plum fairy.”

         “Meet you for cocoa at candy cane lane by the auditorium after?”

         En route to the recital, Clara was stopped by several parents who asked her to bake cupcakes for their holiday parties. “My niece made these business cards, she is my baking assistant,” Clara laughed as she handed out her contact information.

         “God, you certainly have baked up a holiday plan to help carry me over till I get another job.” Clara’s faith grounded her, and she speaks to God reverently, but also as a friend in conversation. “I can still use help with a ‘real’ job, but you know I love to bake.”

         As Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite danced to life, with Lucy on Center Stage…Clara felt a peace that Christmas magic would make everything all right.

Chapter 5:

         Clara squeezed her Subaru into a parking spot in front of Soulful Java in the heart of historic downtown Bedford Springs. She had not been downtown in over a year and was impressed to see several new restaurants and shops in the revitalized arts district.

         “Here goes,” she breathed in deep and said a Hail Mary before going into Soulful Java.

         She did not sleep a wink, spending most of the night creating a business proposal for Matt – including a list of cupcake and other pastry options including her cranberry scones and oatmeal kitchen sink cookies.

         “I’m overthinking this,” Clara looked at the polished proposal she had artfully arranged in a binder. Clara thrives in business and loves to organize and present data, which coupled with her creative streak always empowered her to be the best sales representative on her team.

         “Ms. Keene, it’s so nice to see you!” Matt’s eyes lit up as she walked in the room. “Can I get you a cup of coffee or what is your preference.”

         “I hear you have the best Americano in town.” Man, Matt made her weak in the knees. She had not felt this way since her high school crush and that had not ended well.

         “Keep it together,” Clara thought to herself as she gathered her composure.

         Soulful Java is located on the first floor of what used to be the city’s old performing arts center. It is an art deco building with intricate detail work and character. The building fell on hard times a few years back, but local investors helped to restore the center to its former glory. Today the building houses a variety of artists and a small black box theater.

         “I love what you have done with the space. It the ambiance of an upscale jazz club combined with a cozy neighborhood haunt.”

         “Thanks,” Matt led them to a private nook in the back of the shop. “I am an architect by trade and wanted to retain the character of the space.”

         “I can see this being a third space to gather downtown.” Clara noticed a small stage landing. “Do you host concerts here?”

         “We have live jazz on Friday and Saturday nights – depending on the season.”

         “The center used to be a jazz hotspot in the 30s and 40s I hear.”

         “History lover and awesome baker-you do have a winning combination.”

         “Speaking of baking – I really appreciate your interest in my cupcakes. I have a knack for baking, but I’ve never been asked to bake professionally before.”

         “I’ve eaten a lot of cupcakes in my life and the sugar plum cupcake yesterday is by far the best dessert I’ve ever eaten.  Everyone at the carnival was talking about how delicious your cupcakes were.”

         “That’s kind of you to say…” While Clara had received multiple requests for Christmas cupcake orders, the idea of baking for profit seemed surreal.

         “I know your cupcakes and desserts will fly off the shelves here – I’d love to form a partnership to sell your baked goods at Soulful Java.”

         “I’m honored and I’d love the opportunity to bake for the coffee shop,” Clara handed Matt a copy of her business plan.

         “A business plan – and you claim you are just an amateur,” Matt teased with a sly grin.

         “I have been baking since I can remember, but my career is in software sales and business leadership. Baking has always been a hobby.  I do have some extra time on my hands this month as I’m in between jobs, but that will change in January”

         “Side hustles are always good. I still work as an architect and understand time constraints. I can be flexible with your hours as needed. I want to be the official coffee shop of Clara’s Cupcakes.”

         “Clara’s Cupcakes…I do like the sound of that.” Clara rested on the idea a moment. “I will give it a chance through the holidays.”

         “You don’t know how much this means to me! You are a life saver.” Matt had been genuinely concerned about not having any muffins and sweet treats in the café – a lot of the downtown customers relied on Soulful Java for a caffeine fix and quick snack. “I noticed you included sample pricing and menus in your proposal.”

         “Yes, those prices factor in food costs and profit margin for both of us.”

         “I appreciate your hard work – for a supposed novice,” Matt reviewed the documentation. “I agree to your terms, and I also will allow use of my test kitchen and provide key ingredients like flour, eggs and milk as needed.”

         “I plan to produce some allergen free treats as well.”

         “Great idea, several of my regular customers are gluten intolerant.” Matt took the next thirty minutes to give Clara a tour of the coffee shop and kitchen.

         “This kitchen is amazing…Julia Child would be proud to bake here.”

         “So, we have a deal?” While Matt recruited Clara for her top fleet baking skills, he couldn’t help but be attracted to her.

Clara is an old-school beauty – who resembled 1930s actress Myrna Loy. Clara’s classic look and complimented by her preppy bohemian style. Matt realized that java and romance do not usually work out, so he decided to focus on the business of cupcakes for now.

“Yes, when you want me to start?”

“The kitchen is open – so as soon as possible.”

“You want me to start baking right now?” Clara laughed.

“I’ve got a pretty bad sweet tooth and your cupcakes are the cure. Seriously no pressure, tomorrow works fine.”

“I like a challenge,” Clara countered. “I’ll bake some treats today, so you have them for your morning rush. My only ask is you add money to the parking meter out front.”

“This is the beginning of a beautiful partnership.”

~

         Fortunately, the kitchen was well stocked with staples like sugar, flour, butter, and eggs.  After surveying the pantry, she managed to scour up enough ingredients to bake a holiday take on the Vanilla cupcake.

         “For your enjoyment – the ‘Winter Wonderland Cupcake.’” Clara presented perfectly decorated cupcakes. “This cupcake is a vanilla base with royal icing snowflakes and peppermint flakes.”

         “Are these from Santa’s workshop.”

         “I’m glad you approve.”

         “I’m going to post a few cupcake pics on social media to get the word out. I want everyone to know that Soulful Java is the home of Clara’s Cupcakes.”

         “Great idea!” Clara’s business brain contemplated getting a website for the cupcakes, but it was too early in the start-up game. She would focus on the baking for now. “Speaking of social media…I don’t want to overstep here – but I have a lot of marketing experience and I have some ideas to help drive additional business to Soulful Java. I can draft some ideas in a proposal if you’re open to it?”

         “I’m always open to innovative ideas.” Matt enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate with Clara, recognizing her creative business savvy. “Here’s a check for the first order, plus a little bonus for start-up supplies.”

         “Pleasure doing business with you.” Clara was happy to get the payment– it was not much but certainly help. “I can be here tomorrow at 8 a.m. if that works?”

         “Perfect.” Matt did not want Clara to leave – he wanted to sit and chat with her a few more hours – just spend time together talking over coffee and cupcakes.

         “Thanks for taking a chance on me.” Clara’s voice filled with excitement.

         “We’re going to be a wonderful team.”

To continue the story…

Click here for Part II